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APS Looks To Add To Its Collection Of Vacant Schools

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Superintendent Erroll Davis's recommendations for a reshuffling of Atlanta Public School's school districts and feeding patterns were posted online Sunday evening, without fanfare or pretense. But by the next morning, the now-familiar uproar had resumed — indeed, PTA listservs and community message boards are lit-up with chatter concerning the victories and renewed convictions of the district boundary battle's most vocal parent groups. Yet almost lost in the drama are the parts of the recommendation with the most consequence: in order to cut the "seat excess" roughly in half and better coordinate the system's resources, the APS leadership team suggests the closure of 13 — over an eighth — of its schools.

The three middle schools the system plans to shutter would be converted into centers for alternative learning — two, Kennedy and Parks, into community-specific "career academies" and one, Coan, into a sixth-grade academy to supplement an expanded Grady cluster.

As for the remaining eight elementary school facilities, APS has "identified a building repurposing team" and pledges to usher the empty buildings into new use: "?we understand that closed and blighted buildings negatively affects [sic] communities and economic development, we are exploring meaningful uses for facilities recommended for closure." But what are the chances that Dr. Davis, who likely won't be at APS much longer, and his team follow through? Schools, especially elementary schools, are anchors of their neighborhoods; can that be replaced? -Sarah Beth McKay

There are plenty of successfully-repurposed school buildings in Atlanta — to name a few, the Center for Puppetry Arts in Midtown, the Little Five Points Community Center, and a gamut of residential complexes such as the Bass Lofts on Euclid near Little Five Points, the apartment building at State Street and 11th Street in Home Park, and the Highland School Lofts on North Avenue. These, however, are nearly all handsome historic structures situated in well-developed areas; most of the soon-to-be shuttered elementary schools are of the "modern institutional" aesthetic, located at the center of residential communities that are neither dense nor in active development. And APS's track record of finding stable new uses for empty schools like these isn't exactly confidence-inspiring.

In 2006, APS put 20 properties, including vacant schools totaling 375,000 square feet, up for sale; few of them sold. Last year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools commissioned a survey of many of the same vacant APS properties, with the intent of evaluating the potential for each school to be converted into a charter school. Of the 14 schools, only two are in "good" condition (requiring less than 25 percent of the cost of new construction to restore); nine, including the former Howard High School in the Old Fourth Ward, are in "poor" or "serious" condition. A "major issue" at all properties is vandalism. Adding eight imminently abandoned properties, from the rat-infested to the potentially marketable, to the system's decaying collection hardly seems like a serious commitment to the prevention of blight.

Only one school recommended for closure — Capitol View Elementary, a Beltline-adjacent brick structure with the look of a slightly Art Deco factory, and the only elementary school currently pictured on APS's Wikipedia page — is currently slated for demolition. The fate of East Lake Elementary property, built originally as a courthouse, is unknown. And of course, all of these plans are subject to another month of debate and the discretion of the (if only, infallible) Board of Education — just last year, public outcry caused the DeKalb County System to cut a proposed list of 14 schools down to eight. There is no doubt that APS needs to consolidate; it's just that school-sized holes left unattended in already-fragile neighborhoods is not progress by any measurement. -Sarah Beth McKay