The power of positive energy was in full effect on day one at Dunbar Elementary School. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

Now in her sixth year as principal of Dunbar Elementary School, Dr. Anneice Gentry is right where she wants to be.

Dunbar sits in the heart of a resilient Orange Mound community.

“When I first came, I had no idea about the extreme pride people in this community have,” Gentry said. “But they love Melrose High School and they love their community, Orange Mound.

“I love it here at Dunbar,” she added. “I’ve always felt my place was with an inner-city school.”

Before this assignment, Gentry was “out East” – an assistant principal at a school free from the struggles and challenges of many inner-city schools. Poverty and all of its ills were absent from her former experience.

“I prayed for the Lord to give me an inner-city school,” said Dr. Gentry.

And, of course, she brought it up in her interview with SCS Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

“Superintendent Hopson asked me, ‘Are you sure you can handle an inner-city school?’” she recalled. “And here I am.”

Parents, relatives and teachers in Orange Mound are excited for children to come back to school. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

At Dunbar, like many schools in lower-income communities, 100 percent of the student body is eligible for the reduced lunch program. Their households receive food stamps and/or other social service assistance.

Gentry and her staff strive to instill excellence in their students in ways big and small. Among the small ways: She and much of her staff much prefer to use the word “scholars” to refer to their students.

“Our scholars need our caring, our understanding, and our experience,” Gentry said. “There may be some circumstances at home that may not be ideal. But I am passionate about us addressing the needs of our scholars. When I interview teachers who apply here, there is one basic question I ask; ‘Are you able to build a relationship?’ Because that is what our scholars need from us.”

Sherri L. Phillips made the cut. She started off teaching in day care at Southside Church of Christ — 25 years. Then she went to work in the school system as a teacher’s assistant.

“I was a teaching assistant, and one day, that teacher told me, ‘Stop doing my job, and go back to school so you can teach your own class. And that’s what I did.”

Phillips said she enrolled at Southwest Community College before finishing at LeMoyne Owen College. Now, she’s an instructional math coach.

“I work with all grades,” she said. “I love our scholars. This job is much more than teaching. We must be attentive to any needs that may not be met in the home. All that we can possibly do here at school, we want to do.”

Third-grade math and science teacher Sherrie D. Lewis is working on her student teaching requirement while completing graduate studies at Dunbar.

“I really have a heart for our scholars because I know what struggle is,” said Lewis. “I have had to interrupt my education to teach because I got married and had a baby. So I had to wait a while to realize my dream of being an educator.

“We are like parents to our scholars as well as teachers because we try to be sensitive to what may be lacking at home,” she added. “Every teacher here really wants to be here.”

More than 40 percent of Dunbar students, said Dr. Gentry, come from households where grandparents are raising the children.

“I really want to make a difference in the lives of our scholars,” said Gentry. “I knew it would be a struggle, and I knew it would take time. But I walk a child home sometimes. If there is some issue, I am not afraid to go into the home. That is what got parents on my side. They know I really care, and I am ready to help.”

Shantrice W. Patterson is one such parent. Two of her five children are at Dunbar, and before she got transportation, she’d walk her children to school.

“One morning, a car slowed down, and a boy had a gun and put it out the window and cocked it, like click-click,” she said. “I told my son to just keep walking.”

She still very much believes in Dunbar.

“I wish we were in a safer area but I like this school because the teachers really care about our children, and they go out of their way to show that they want to help,” Patterson said. “My son started in Pre-K over here. They worked with him. His speech is better, and now, he can tie his shoes because someone took the time to show him how. That may seem small, but that helps me so much.”