According to Tim Gilmore of Jax Psycho Geo fame it’s likely that the school was designed by Richard Lewis Brown, Jacksonville’s first black architect. Born into slavery and eventually serving two terms in the Florida House of Representatives, Brown’s ascension in life mirrored the school’s neighborhood name.
Dating back to 1904, what is now known as the Phoenix Avenue neighborhood was originally platted as the Dyal-Upchurch subdivision by Frank Upchurch and Benjamin Dyal’s Dyal-Upchurch Investment Company. Dyal-Upchurch was a Georgia investment company that moved to Jacksonville after the Great Fire of 1901. Frank Upchurch had interests in turpentine and lumber, while Benjamin Dyal operated a saw mill.
The name “Phoenix” represented the city rising from the ashes of the 1901 fire. A Phoenix Park Streetcar Line ride south, took residents to Springfield and downtown Jacksonville. A ride north provided direct access to Evergreen Cemetery and Panama Park, while a ride to the east provided access to Talleyrand’s heavy industry.
Surrounded by railroad yards and heavy industry, Phoenix developed as a working class neighborhood largely built out prior to the start of World War II. That early 20th century growth led to a need to expand the school in 1926. Roy Benjamin was hired to design the school’s expansion. One of Jacksonville’s best known architects of his era, Benjamin also designed the city’s Florida Theatre and San Marco Theatre.
Over the years, the school’s name changed several times. In 1910, the School Board had called it Graded Springfield School, later East Springfield School, and then East Jacksonville School. In 1956, it was renamed James Allen Axson Elementary School. Born in Orangeburg County, South Carolina in 1894, Axson served as the school’s principal from 1938 until his retirement in 1955.
The school’s fortunes declined with the aging bungalow and frame vernacular neighborhood it served. As the city began to sprawl, expressways were used as solution to efficiently move traffic and as a tool for urban renewal and blight removal. By the mid-1960s, the Haines Street Expressway (now MLK, Jr. Parkway) had been completed just east of the school, physically severing neighborhood connectivity and accessibility.
Seeking to repurpose aging and under-performing schools in blighted neighborhoods, Axson eventually became a Montessori school as a part of the Duval County Magnet Program in 1991. The hope was to provide specializations in education that parents across the entire county might select for their children, attracting them to attend schools in the inner city.
By the late 1990s, the time had arrived where the school board needed to invest money in what had become the second-oldest public school building still in operation. Estimating spending as much as $10 million, being cost-prohibitive, a decision was made to abandon the inner city neighborhood in favor of a new $10.4-million, 23.7-acre suburban site 17 miles away. After the 2005 opening of the new Southside campus, Public School No. 8 operated as the Northeast Springfield Head Start Center before permanently closing after the 2012-13 school year.
Unfortunately, the story of Public School No. 8 represents a lack of understanding the critical role neighborhood schools have on the overall health of the communities they serve. The quickest way to drive an economic nail in the coffin of a distressed community is to sever its connectivity to adjacent neighborhoods, while also permanently closing its schools. Thus, with no public school and completely surrounded by expressways and railroad lines, Phoenix is in a dire situation.
According to the US Census Bureau between 2000 and 2010, the neighborhood’s population declined 15.2% while its number of vacant residential units increased 19.7%. These are numbers that should be considered unacceptable in a Sunbelt city that grew 11.7% over the same period of time.
Public schools are supposed to be engines of educational and economic opportunity. Public School No. 8 was initially converted into the James Allen Axson Montessori to attract more students and economically sufficient families to neighborhoods like Phoenix. Now located in suburbia, less than 12% poor students are enrolled in its programs. They say a child’s course in life should not be determined by the zip code they’re born and raised in. Unfortunately, in many inner city neighborhoods like Phoenix, the opposite continues to take place today.
So as the historic Public School No. 8 building and the surrounding neighborhood continues to decline, it should be no surprise that a recent Jacksonville Public Education Fund (JPEF) white paper suggests that the city’s poor African-American students are doubly segregated and doubly disadvantaged.
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