How a new school building in East Nashville is breaking down the barriers of poverty


Families and community members gather in front of the new school prior to the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Families and community members gather in front of the new school prior to the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“It’s big on the outside. It’s cool on the inside. And it can fit way more students.” That’s how Ma’Lique Browder, a founding student at Explore! Community School, described his new school building at a recent ribbon cutting ceremony that drew hundreds of families and community members together to celebrate. 

The excitement around the celebration extended beyond the fact that Malik and his fellow Explorers were able to start their school year this week in a brand-new facility. The new school opening also marked a major milestone in the long-term transformation of Cayce Place, Nashville’s largest public housing development

The new building for Explore! is the centerpiece of the Envision Cayce Master Plan spearheaded by the Metropolitan Development and Housing Authority (MDHA). Envision Cayce will integrate expanded public housing options into a mixed-income, mixed-use community, in an effort to remedy the economic and social challenges caused by concentrated poverty.

“The Explore! building will be a place where all families can come to learn, play and work together for a stronger community,” said Marsha Edwards, CEO of nonprofit Martha O’Bryan Center, which launched Explore! in 2015. “We are proud to be in partnership with residents and MDHA in Envision Cayce, the boldest reimagining of public housing in the nation.” 

It is estimated that the new Cayce neighborhood will house at least 1,000 additional school-aged children once completed. Explore! is currently serving grades K-4 and will grow one grade at a time until it serves an estimated 900 students through eighth grade. 

Explore! Community School is a proof point in creating an intentionally diverse community with over half of the students it serves classified as economically disadvantaged and/or students of color. And the school’s new building will serve not only the students and families of Explore!, but also the community at large. 

The 90,000-square-foot facility has spaces open to anyone in the neighborhood, such as gardens, performance and gallery venues, and craftsmanship rooms stocked with equipment, such as sewing machines and drafting tables.  

“This neighborhood is going from 900 units to as many as 2,700 mixed-income units,” Edwards said. “I have great confidence in the vision of our original residents for this new community. It is their leadership that will make this a true neighborhood where people of different socioeconomic backgrounds live and learn together. The Explore! building will be a place for families to get to know each other or for a new resident to meet neighbors at the community hip hop class.”

Examples of community happenings that will take place in the building outside of the regular school schedule include adult education classes, community meals and summer camp activities.

Explore! is a public charter school that uses project-based learning to foster independence, critical thinking, and creativity among its diverse community of learners. Because of this, students were in charge of designing  the program for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which included a paper chain created by the students to serve as the ceremonial ribbon at the new building’s entrance. 

School principal Stephanie Jarrett-Thorpe said: “We are a project-based learning school, so the ribbon-cutting is another opportunity for our Explorers to design, revise and execute a real-world project for their community.”

District 6 Councilmember Brett Withers, who has represented parts of East Nashville, including the Cayce Homes since 2015, also attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“The addition of a new K-8 school to the James A. Cayce Homes campus was a priority for Cayce residents who participated in the Envision Cayce Master Plan process several years ago,” Withers said. “The opening of the Explore! Community School building embodies the hope of our East Nashville community in aspiring to tear down walls that separate neighborhoods along race and income criteria and to build up children who can escape poverty in one generation.”

In addition to project-based learning, Explore’s curriculum and culture focus strongly on diversity. Although the school is open for enrollment to any elementary student living in Davidson County, the school has a Geographic Preference Zone (GPZ) for families who live in Cayce, providing enrollment preference to children in the neighborhood. 

The project-based learning curriculum emphasizes 21st Century skills such as teamwork and critical thinking, as students identify real world problems and building iterative solutions that culminate in presentations to their community.  For students whose first language is not English, or students with learning differences and disabilities, a project-based learning curriculum offers a dynamic approach where there are a number of ways a student may shine.


Martha O'Bryan Center is an anti-poverty nonprofit organization with longstanding history and deep community roots, grounded in tradition and strengthened by innovation. Founded in 1894 when Miss Martha O'Bryan organized the Gleaners Society at First Presbyterian Church to support impoverished North Nashville residents, Martha O'Bryan Center has operated from the heart of Cayce Place - Nashville's largest public housing campus - since 1948. This is where we continue in service, partnering with Cayce Place families to open doors of hope and possibility, create a culture of attainment, and positively shape future generations. Martha O’Bryan Center serves 12,000 people annually with its programs in early learning, parent empowerment, youth development, adult education, food security, crisis counseling and public charter schools East End Prep and Explore! Community School.

Kelli Gauthier