The Soul of the Future: The Soulsville Charter School in Memphis, Tennessee

Mike Lawson • • October 2, 2018

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Talent, intelligence, determination, enthusiasm, hard work, ambition and passion do not recognize or honor man-made boundaries such as neighborhoods and their demographics.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in South Memphis, Tennessee and the success story of the STAX Museum of American Soul Music, STAX Music Academy and especially The Soulsville Charter School.

South Memphis is among the poorest neighborhoods in the nation. With older and smaller houses providing living space for larger numbers of people with lower education and earnings, it does have a rich cultural background.

This is also an area with a rich musical history that includes famous Beale Street. Beale Street roared during the 1920s with everything that made that era infamous, but blues music was the backdrop for everything that went on. Today, an urban redeveloped version is a Memphis tourist attraction that honors its musical past with over 165 brass notes. These are musical-note-shaped brass markers in the sidewalk honoring everyone from W. C. Handy and Elvis to Justin Timberlake. Over time, South Memphis has become known as Soulsville.

This area also was once the home of STAX Records and its subsidiary, VOLT Records. STAX Records started out in 1957 as Satellite Records, the voice of southern soul music. It became STAX, that name derived from founder Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton’s names in 1961. The performers and music presented by STAX is legendary.

Second only to Motown, the STAX and VOLT labels posted 167 top 100 pop and 243 top 100 R&B listings on the charts. Artists included Otis Redding, Rufus & Carla Thomas,Booker T & the MGs. The Soulsville Foundation was established in the late 1990s by South Memphis business leaders, philanthropists and former STAX employees.Their educational mission is to “develop young people for lifelong success!”

The foundation ( funds and operates the STAX Museum of American Soul Music, the STAX Music Academy (an after-school program), and The Soulsville Charter School. All of these function/operate in buildings built on the original site of the STAX Recording studios.

The foundation took an incremental approach to accomplish their mission. The STAX Music Academy was established in 2000 as an after school South Memphis (Soulsville) neighborhood mentoring program using music as the common denominator or connection.

Demonstrating the spirit of harmony, respect and cooperation once practiced at STAX Records, the academy now serves over 120 middle and high school students in its schoolyear SNAP! Program and over 100 high school students in a five-week SNAP! Summer Music Experience. The academy operates in a state-of-the-art facility located at the original STAX site (

Johnathon Lee is an example of the life-changing impact and role that this Academy plays. In a situation more common than not, Johnathon was not challenged in his public elementary school. With his single mother he attended an academy concert and was inspired by what he saw and heard. He applied and was accepted into the academy’s after-school program. The academy provided stability and an environment of accomplishment to a young man who already had skirted trouble in a failing school environment.

The next component, which opened in 2003, was the STAX Museum of American Soul Music ( The museum is housed in an exact replica of the original STAX building and offers exhibits, an archives and historic video presentations. In addition to honoring the roots of the entire foundation enterprise, the museum introduces its visitors to the educational functions.

The Soulsville Charter School was established in 2005 as a tuition free public charter school which utilizes the STAX Music Academy building which is vacant during the usual school hours (the academy is only an after-school program). The stated mission is to prepare students for success in college and life, not just music. The school began operations with only 60 students. Today it serves over 600 students in grades 6 through 12.

Numbers and facts don’t begin to tell the story of this school’s impact on their student’s lives, and ours as well. Johnathon knew early on that he wasn’t being challenged in his public school. The simplest challenge of juggling two jobs and transporting Johnathon from his public school to the academy made the establishment of the Soulsville Charter School the answer to prayers. Johnathon applied and was accepted to The Soulsville Charter School, graduating just this last May.

Today Johnathon is a summer Soulsville Foundation development intern. While he performs the usual fund-raising activities, he also serves as an “idea generator” for new and creative ways to address the funding issue. Johnathon also recruits students for the academy and the charter school by making presentations at public schools and other locations. This is part of his “give back” to the academy and charter school which have made him what he is and is becoming.

With his eyes set on both performing and producing musical theatre, he is about to begin his full scholarship study at a performing arts college in Los Angeles. That’s a long way from South Memphis!

But the charter school is about producing “life-long success” not just in music and other arts fields. To be sure, Stephani Brownlee, an accomplished keyboarder with her own band is such an example. Stephani never knew her father and her mother passed away when Stephani was only five years old. Raised by her grandmother, she grew up in an extended family filled with music and musicians. Some were professional musicians and for others it was just a major part of their lives. Out of this background she developed a love of soul, rhythm & blues, and country music.

Academically, she enjoyed chemistry and biology, observing as early as the ninth grade that everything, and especially we humans, are chemical compositions. That observation from the ninth-grade chemistry labs and beyond inspired a career goal as a forensic scientist!

Brown University provided her Bachelors’ degree in Criminology, followed by master’s at both Florida State University and Harvard. Her career goal was to become an FBI Special Agent in cyber security – the internet. Stephani is currently considering offers from the Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security (and of course she will continue her music).

And what sort of faculty members work with these inspired students who demand to be challenged? Dennis Leoni serves as the string ensemble instructor and orchestra director. A native of Brazil, and an accomplished cellist, he studied at the University of Mississippi in Hattiesburg where he fell in love with teaching and outreach. He became aware that music is just part of a community’s culture with the instruments being the tools to impact that culture. Music then becomes a mechanism for cultural change.

Upon arrival at The Soulsville Charter School, Leoni found many instruments were broken or in need of repair, forcing a sharing of the usable instruments. He set about repairing these broken instruments so that every student could have his own. This ownership allows a relationship between the musician and his instrument. Part of Leoni’s mission is to introduce the concept that no genre, or group stands alone, but is part of a larger community. The string ensemble is simply part of the music community that includes band and choirs. The concept and reality of discipline coupled with correct method can produce consistency. All of this requires hard work! This is what he teaches.

Another unique aspect of this charter school is an alumni support counseling function. Building on a required senior course that educates and coaches the students through the college and financial aid application process, the counseling follows the student to college.

Assistance is provided in transitioning from the protected and supportive environment of the charter school to the self-reliant nature of college. Alumni counselors such as Rachel Cox even travel to an alumnus‘s college when necessary. For the first six graduation classes over 150 colleges have accepted Soulsville graduates. These range from Agnes Scott to Xavier University.

Not satisfied with its steady and impressive growth, the foundation has set off to accelerate that growth. They are currently searching for a chief operating officer (COO) to develop and put new programs in place. The foundation goals are to further the organization as a global leader in soul music, enhance the youth development offerings and deepen the impact on its host community, Memphis.

The front cover of the Tennessee 2018 Official Vacation Guide features the image and a Martin Luther King quote, “The dream still lives!” Certainly, these words could also be accurately applied to the Soulsville Charter School and its string ensemble!

Just the very existence of this school is evidence of these words. Each step in the birth and development of this school is evidence that dreams do live, even in South Memphis! While all of Tennessee claims to be the “soundtrack of America,” Memphis is soul’s main track.

Is this unique and highly successful blending of history and education making its mark outside of South Memphis? You bet! Falling near to the tree is the DREAM Academy in Macon, Georgia. It has just accepted its first-year students in the pre-K through sixth grade classes in a music-based environment. This academy was started by Karla Redding-Andrews, daughter of STAX recording star Otis Redding, for the Otis Redding Foundation. And rumor has it that other similar projects are in the educational works. Indeed “The Dream Still Lives!”

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