The original West Lewisville School was located at the SW corner of Lewis and Goodwin Streets. (State Archives of Florida)
Located in an area now known as Mixon Town, West Lewisville is a historic 20-block neighborhood that originated during the late 19th century as a westward expansion of nearby African-American communities such as LaVilla, Campbell Hill and Brooklyn. Dominated by small one-story shotgun houses, churches and bungalow courts, the neighborhood quickly became a place for working class African-Americans due to employment opportunities at nearby manufacturing plants, packing houses and railyards. Like many Jim Crow era inner city communities, West Lewisville economically declined as a result of desegregation, industrial closures and the loss of jobs and contamination left behind.
Rendering of the proposed Jacksonville Classical School (Vestcor Family Foundation)
Now a developer involved in several affordable and workforce housing projects in Downtown Jacksonville is spearheading an effort to transform the neighborhoods most contaminated site. A dream of John Rood, chairman of Jacksonville-based Vestcor Companies, Inc., construction is now underway on a charter school that will erase a highly visible brownfield site where the City of Jacksonville operated the Forest Street Incinerator adjacent to a long closed elementary school and park for decades.
Proposed Jacksonville Classical School site plan (St. Johns River Water Management District)
Last month, the Vestcor Family Foundation acquired the property, slated for the Jacksonville Classical Academy, for $1.4 million. Affiliated with a private liberal arts college in Michigan known for not accepting state or federal taxpayer funding, the classical school’s traditional curriculum will be provided through Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative. Plans submitted for the site indicate the development of a two-story, 88,040 square foot school with a large surface parking lot facing Forest Street. Intersection improvements would be made at Forest and Goodwin Streets. Recreational areas include grassed fields, a concrete play court and tot lot. Future plans indicate the addition of a soccer field and 15,303 square foot gym.
The historic Forest Park Center and Jacksonville Classical School construction site. (Ennis Davis, AICP)
In addition, the charter school preserves the property’s historically significant National Youth Administration (NYA) Forest Park Center. Established in 1936, the NYA was a federal agency created by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt under president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) to provide programs to promote relief and employment for young people and women. The NYA program for African-Americans was headed by Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, who was also an appointed national adviser to president Franklin D. Roosevelt and called the “The First Lady of The Struggle” due to her commitment to gain better lives for African Americans. Built in 1940 by the NYA, the Forest Park Center is a long time community fxture and lasting local result of these two great women in America’s history collaborating together for African-American youth.
A historic photograph of the long closed and demolished Forest Street Elementary School (Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department)
When complete, the Jacksonville Classical Academy will become the second school on the property. The first, Forest Park Elementary opened in 1954 as a replacement for the smaller West Lewisville Elementary School. Built at the intersection of Forest and Goodwin Streets, the school had an enrollment of 744 elementary students in 1955. Forest Park became one of eight all-black inner city schools in Jacksonville to close in 1971 after U.S. District Judge Gerald Tjoflat ordered massive crosstown busing in Duval County. At the time, it was said these schools could not maintain a 70/30 white-black teacher ratio because it was believed that white teachers would not want to teach in African-American neighborhoods. Approved by the school board in May 2019, the Jacksonville Classical Academy will open as a kindergarten through sixth grade school in fall 2020. Adding a grade each year, the school will eventually become a Kindergarten through twelfth grade facility with an enrollment of nearly 1,000 students. In addition to the charter school, which is expected to draw students from the neighborhood and nearby downtown, a 1.65 public park on the north side of the property near McCoys Creek and the former ash incinerator location.
Jacksonville Classical Academy construction site
Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at email@example.com