Dr. Edward Stephens III leads the rollout of a new sensory-based playground at STAR Academy Charter School on the campus of Golden Gate Cathedral. Courtesy photo

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN — A 4,400 sq. ft. sensory-based playground aptly named Imagination Station will soon become a reality for students in grades K-6 at STAR Academy Charter School, 3260 James Rd., in the Raleigh community.

The $400,000 project officially kicked off Oct. 5 with a groundbreaking on the campus of Golden Gate Cathedral, 3240 James Rd., where the single-site charter school is located. 

Founded in 2004 by Bishop Edward H. Stephens Jr., GGC’s senior pastor, the charter school operates under the auspices of the Golden Gate Development Corporation, a non-profit organization. 

Dr. Edward Stephens III, the pastor’s eldest son, is STAR Academy’s chief operating officer. He is resolute and committed to providing resources for children to stimulate their minds.

“Children must have an outlet,” Dr. Stephens said. “If you can figure out a way to give them that outlet and infuse STEM technology, electronics, [and] play all in the same space, you’ve done something special.”

Standard playgrounds, where young children romp around and expend energy, are being replaced in some schools and parks in other cities for sensory playground equipment.

Hence, the inspiration for Imagination Station was derived from the aforementioned schools and parks in other cities, Dr. Stephens said.

According to a statement from STAR Academy, these sensory-based, fun, and safe spaces utilize equipment, technology, and gadgets to stimulate all senses, promoting curiosity, discovery, and creativity. 

In addition, sensory play promotes such skills as cognitive recall, problem solving, prolonged attention span, and stimulates everything from critical thinking and confidence building to social and emotional skills.  

“It should stimulate all the senses while promoting curiosity, discovery, and creativity,” Dr. Stephens emphasized. “That’s where the name comes from – Imagination Station. That’s the benefit of a sensory-based playground.”

Imagination Station was set to become a reality before the pandemic. But the plan was scrapped, Dr. Stephens said. “We were initially about to strike, but obviously covid hit. So, we bracketed and suspended the effort. Then we recently revived it.”

Dr. Stephens pointed out that the sensory-based playground is just one of several strategic investments the school will make over the next few years. 

“There’s a huge push in literacy right now,” Dr. Stephens said. “We’re looking at pre-K and erecting a state-of-the-art facility, which will be a natural feeder for STAR (Academy). So, pre-K will allow us to serve families, literally, from the cradle up to six-grade.”

Dr. Stephens noted the importance of “equity and access.” They are pillars that could be added to STAR’s mission, which is “to be an educational incubator that promotes critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, and cultural competency in a safe, nurturing, and innovative environment.” 

The chief operating officer also is looking at ways to build sustainable families with healthy eco-systems. “Instead of looking at the student/scholar singly, we’re looking at strengthening the family-unit as a whole,” he said.

Imagination Station could be described by the leadership and teachers at STAR Academy as a “tip of the spear” in their effort to educate more than 300 students from five to 11 years old.

Dr. Stephens made a final point: “We want to make sure our children have the same resources as children on the other side of town,” including students grappling with “mental health disparities…and children living on the edge.”

He expects Imagination Station to pay dividends down the road in terms of educating the student/scholar with all the resources STAR Academy can muster.