By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — MLK Magnet’s new library was dedicated to Dr. Samella Junior-Spence on Friday, April 21. The library is on the first floor of a new wing attached to the Pearl High School building on 17th Ave. N. that was built in 1937. The upper floors will have classrooms and the two-year project includes renovation of the old building with its brick façade and distinctive Art Deco portico.
Dr. Spence started MLK in 1986 with grades 7-9. It was Metro’s first secondary magnet school and graduated its first class of seniors in 1990. Spence was the first woman high school principal in Davidson County.
During Spence’s tenure of eleven years, MLK had a 99.9% graduation rate. Its students took computer science classes at Vanderbilt, math classes at Fisk, and science classes at Meharry. They were bussed to class at 7 AM by car and then brought back to work with their teachers at MLK. Spence paid for the gas.
Current principal of Napier Elementary School, Watechia Lawless, was in MLK’s first graduating class.
“ I am who I am because of who she is… and I strive every day to be the type of principal she was for me,” Lawless said.
Lawless said she grew up poor and when she was elected to the Homecoming Court, she couldn’t afford to buy a dress so Spence lent her one of hers.
“She bought shoes for our basketball team because they didn’t have them but she made sure they knew and coach Shelton knew they had to come home with a win. Excellence was the only option.”
Lawless said she went to Spellman College because Spence went there. She joined the same sorority. She got her PhD in Education, too. Spence has earned three. Lawless became a teacher and then a principal because Spence inspired her.
“Even if we didn’t have the exposure or the background to dream, she had those dreams for us. And she supported us and gave us the skills to realize those dreams. For that I am extremely grateful.” Lawless said.
“Dr. Spence, I love you and I am forever grateful. So on behalf of all the students you have had the opportunity to impact, we say thank you.”
“I’m honored that you thought of me,” Spence said.
Spence said she never had problems with her students. “You have to be loving and kind and they pick up on it,” she said. Spence was bound and determined to give her students a quality public school education.
Failing them was simply not an option for Spence who managed to finagle support from college presidents as well as parents and business partners who found the materials and resources that MLK’s rigorous curriculum required.
It worked. MLK’s graduates went to top universities all over the country. Several returned to Nashville and two are currently city council members.
“We owe these children the best and we have to find a way to provide the best just as our parents did for us,” she said.
Spence had some advice for School Superintendent Shawn Joseph who has submitted an ambitious budget to the Mayor’s office.
“Hang on in there Try to keep on looking for resources where he can get them,” Spence suggested.
Metro schools are facing cutbacks in about $100 million dollars that the district gets from several federal programs.
“The government is not going to ever give us enough dollars to do what we need to do,” Joseph said.
He has a strategy that comes straight out of Spence’s education playbook.
“Now that we have a strategic plan, we can look at what we get from our government entities, see the gaps, and then go after ways with partners to fill those gaps,” Joseph said.