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How parents rallied to boost this Buckhead school’s struggling play spaces

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Grassroots push has raised $620,000 where a majority of students are low-income

Construction photo of cement bleachers.
Garden Hills students will soon enjoy performances at their new amphitheater.
Acorns to Oaks Foundation

Unlike other city schools, there’s one in Buckhead that isn’t waiting for outside assistance to improve its green space.

Long before the City of Atlanta, Atlanta Public Schools, Park Pride, The Trust for Public Land, and other groups came together to launch an initiative to improve APS schoolyards with the goal of opening them to the public, the parents at Garden Hills Elementary School were already on the job.

The school is tucked off Peachtree Road in the shadow of high-rises, just south of the Buckhead Village. And five years ago, two key problems with the school’s 3.7-acre green space—drainage and underutilization—spurred the idea for a grassroots capital campaign.

Then, two years ago, Acorns to Oaks Foundation, a parent-led 501(c)3 organization, hired engineering and architecture firm Travis Pruitt & Associates to design a space that would best serve the students.

Throughout the process, Acorns to Oaks Foundation officers consulted with Cynthia Brown, the school’s representative on the APS Board of Education, for her input.

“She’s provided plenty of encouraging words, but made it clear that there would be no money from APS,” Wade Morris, Acorns to Oaks Foundation president, tells Curbed Atlanta.

Construction photo of basketball court with goal.
Phase I of the project includes a new basketball court.
Acorns to Oaks Foundation

The organization has also maintained contact with Alvah Hardy, head of APS facilities, to glean his insight on the project. Like Brown, he offered his wisdom, but no financial support.

“Essentially, there is no money at APS for capital projects like this,” Morris said. “Hardy and his team don’t even have the resources to maintain the space. We’re going to have to take all of those things on in the coming years.”

Acorns to Oaks Foundation also met with Park Pride and The Trust for Public Land on several occasions over 18 months, culminating in a meeting with George Dusenbury, the TPL state director for Georgia and Alabama.

Again, no dice.

“[He] politely told us that we did not make the cut for their new partnership with APS, [because] Garden Hills Elementary, he explained, is a short walk from Frankie Allen Park, and, therefore, doesn’t fit their criteria,” Morris said.

The Garden Hills Elementary field has been re-graded and re-sodded with new drainage.
Acorns to Oaks Foundation

Undeterred, the organization moved forward with plans to overhaul the school’s green space.

The project, which entails two phases, includes re-grading, re-sodding, and new drainage of the school’s open field, an amphitheater, an outdoor classroom, a track with exercise stations, a new basketball court, a creekside garden, new play equipment, and a restroom.

Non-parents in the area stand to benefit, too. The new facilities will be open to the public during non-school hours.

To date, the parent-led group has raised $620,000 of its initial goal: $750,000.

More than $230,000 came from current parents and grandparents—quite the accomplishment considering this is a Title I school, which means it has a relatively high percentage of low-income students.

GreatSchools.org classifies 64 percent of Garden Hills Elementary students as low-income, with a majority (56 percent) coming from nearby Hispanic communities.

Foundations such as The Woodward Fund and local churches, including Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, have contributed more than $250,000. In addition, neighbors unaffiliated with the school have donated more than $70,000, according to Morris.

Phase I is nearing completion and is expected to open later this month. Phase II planning is underway, although it awaits full funding. Acorns to Oaks Foundation continues to solicit local foundations, and is open to donations from interested individuals.