By Sriya Reddy
When Cornerstone Crossroads Academy bought the building that housed the former Phillis Wheatley Elementary in 2019, the South Dallas organization said it would work with the surrounding neighborhood on plans for renovations.
The school, which closed about 10 years ago, sits at the heart of Wheatley Place, a historic Black neighborhood, and several generations of residents had fond memories of attending classes there.
Cornerstone Crossroads Academy, a nonprofit second-chance high school that opened in 2006, was making plans that would allow a faster move to a new location on the grounds of the former elementary school. But after conversations with students and the community, it is updating its plans to preserve a gym that has special meaning to them.
The faith-based organization was going to convert the Wheatley school gym into two floors of classrooms and offices for a total of 4,000 square feet to operate in. This would be cheaper and faster than renovating the whole building at once.
However, when Kristi Lichtenberg, the academy’s executive director and a Wheatley Place resident, shared these plans with her neighbors, she was met with disappointment, leading Cornerstone to reconsider.
“Several things happened kind of simultaneously,” Lichtenberg said. “One is that the cost kept escalating and escalating. At the same time, we started hearing from neighbors and different people saying, ‘Man, you’re going to do all that and at the end of the day, you’re not going to have a gym anymore.’”
Now, Lichtenberg said, they will keep the gym and instead move out of their 1,500-square-foot space near Cornerstone Baptist Church into 2,500 square feet of modular classrooms outside of the Wheatley School’s gym as they wait for the entire building to be renovated.
The high school is aiming to move to Wheatley and have the gym available for use by the fall.
“We love the layout of the building,” Lichtenberg said. “We don’t really want to change any of that at all, but every single thing about it has to be fixed — the roof, the electrical, the plumbing. Everything has been damaged, and also it’s really old.”
The academy is working with Architexas, an architecture firm that often preserves historic buildings, to develop the plans fully.
The modular space will include large and small classrooms, offices, storage, counseling spaces and tutoring rooms.
Tommy Perry has been a resident of Wheatley Place for decades. He said he always thought that keeping the gym would be best for his community. While he didn’t go to Wheatley himself, many of his neighbors and friends did, and he could see the importance of keeping the gym for them.
“It brings back so many memories for some of the people that live here,” Perry said.
Perry said the gym could be used for exercise, community meetings, or just as a place with air conditioning during the Texas heat.
“I thought Cornerstone should just leave it because of the activity that could be done in the space,” he said. “If they made it an office, they couldn’t do all that.”
Sydney Weaver, the academy’s director of operations, said that even the current students value the gym most of all. During a tour they received, the gym was all they were asking about.
“We were like, ‘Look at the classrooms, look at the library,’ and they were like, ‘Where’s the gym?’ Weaver said. “And as soon as we got to the gym, everyone started literally running and being silly. So much joy was brought from this gym.”
Weaver said that during every break the students get, they go out and play basketball. That was how they got to know each other and build relationships.
“We are so excited to have a safe space for them to go play, but also we have a lot of goals of bringing the community together and having space to host people,” Weaver said.
CORRECTION, 12:12 p.m., Aug. 4, 2022: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Cornerstone Baptist Church bought Phillis Wheatley Elementary School. It was Cornerstone Crossroads Academy.