“Decisions that school districts make about the future of closed buildings have lasting impact on the future of their cities, as well as the future of their school systems.”
-Pew Charitable Trust, 2013
In March 2019, the Atlanta Board of Education began updating the facilities master plan with the goal of optimizing usage and efficacy of properties. The board requested that our team of Master of City and Regional Planning Candidates from Georgia Institute of Technology complete a semester-long studio to complement Atlanta Public Schools (APS) and their team of consultants.
This studio seeks to bridge the divide of city planning and school facility planning efforts–a gap that undermines the development of community-centered schools. Even when these planning efforts have worked toward similar goals, they lack an integrated approach that meets student and community needs. The following report establishes decision-making frameworks and initial recommendations for four properties based on APS’ stated priorities and goals.
A guiding principle for our process was equity. We understand that student outcomes are deeply connected to community conditions, as disparities in student achievement reflect the economic and social realities of their lives outside school. According to the Atlanta Public Schools’ Challenge Index, an analysis of 2019 milestones, schools with a high concentration of students on free/reduced lunch or who are English Language Learners have lower than average test scores than schools with more economically privileged students. The report notes that the Index “explains about 91% of the variance in elementary school average test scores” (Atlanta Public Schools, 2019b). This clear achievement gap demonstrates the need for an increased focus on equity through APS’ strategic and facilities planning processes.
Reflecting this priority, and in alignment with APS’ goals, our team has evaluated potential uses for APS vacant properties that adhere to the following objectives: 1) prioritize the equitable distribution of resources and opportunity; 2) address the intrinsic connection between student and community success and 3) foster community engagement and buy-in for new initiatives.
Combining quantitative data projections with qualitative analyses of community assets and needs, we have created a decision-making framework that the District can utilize to inform its Comprehensive Facilities Plan. Our results highlight potential uses for four sites and illuminate the range of possibilities for other vacant properties beyond the subject properties. The selected example sites represent a range of community profiles and demonstrate how the framework can be applied to other properties. Our recommendations offer four distinct examples for reuse of APS properties that consider future school populations and address community needs. Specifically, we propose a cradle-to-career community center, an outdoor learning space, a middle school STEM/technical facility, and a health and physical wellness community center. To support implementation of these recommendations, we also identify potential partners and propose next steps.
Notes of Appreciation
This studio could not have been possible without the encouragement and assistance of several people who care deeply about these issues. We would like to extend a huge thank you to the APS board and staff who were incredibly helpful to us throughout this process by providing guidance, support, and vital information for this project. Specifically, we would like to thank Michelle Olympiadis (District 3) for being our initial point of contact and taking on this process in the first place. We would also like to extend our gratitude to Michelle, Erika Mitchell (District 5), and Leslie Grant (District 1) for coming to our studio space in November to further engage with us on our project. We thank the board as a whole for giving us time to present during their November 14th facilities retreat. In addition, we are grateful to all the APS staff who offered their time, data, and counsel throughout this process. We particularly want to extend a thank you to Larry Hoskins (APS Chief Operating Officer) for being a great advocate and connecting us to other staff members. There were three school principals who took time out of their busy schedules to meet with members of our team. We express our thanks to Kara Stimpson of Young Middle School, Jovan Miles of Thomasville Heights Elementary School, and Ernest Sessoms of Dunbar Elementary School who all provided us great insight into the needs of their schools and larger communities. We also want to thank Sizemore Group for allowing us to exchange information with them.
Finally, we owe a sincere sentiment of gratitude to our studio professor and wise sage, Michael Dobbins, Professor of the Practice in the School of City and Regional Planning. Due to Dobbins’ pearls of wisdom, we were able to avoid several mis-steps in our approach. He pushed us to continuously consider the parts of the whole, but also to zoom out and anticipate change over time. We were very lucky to have such a seasoned practitioner in our court.