On a Monday night inside the board chambers of the Atlanta Public Schools headquarters, there was a palpable tension. As APS officials trickled in, concerned parents and residents of Thomasville Heights packed the room. They filled every available seat, some standing against the wall. Parents still in work clothes brought their children. Officers from the Atlanta Police Department lined the walls, prepared to diffuse potential conflicts.
The topic at the center of the town hall meeting was rezoning and possible temporary closure of Thomasville Heights Elementary School for the 2022-2023 school year.
Frustrated residents showed audible disdain throughout the meeting. They groaned in protest of updates provided by school board members. They clapped in support of those who approached the board to give public comment about the closure and how it will make the community vulnerable to gentrification.
APS officials announced in February the proposed closure of the school in southeast Atlanta as a direct result of the condemnation and pending demolition of nearby Forest Cove Apartments. Nearly 75% of students at Thomasville Heights Elementary live in the complex. Per APS, students living in Forest Cove can complete the current school year at Thomasville Heights Elementary. Starting this fall, the 60 students who currently attend Thomasville Heights Elementary but do not live in Forest Cove will be temporarily rezoned to Slater Elementary School.
One of the concerned Thomasville Heights parents in attendance at the town hall was Sharon Gatson. Gatson and her husband are raising their granddaughter, who attends Thomasville Heights Elementary, but the family does not live in Forest Cove. The family is without a car, and Gatson looks forward to the 10-minute walk to drop off and pick up her granddaughter from school. She’s worried that sense of security will fade when her granddaughter is relocated to Slater Elementary — a roughly hourlong walk — in southwest Atlanta.
“I’m supposed to drop my baby off at a [school] bus stop and pray she is taken care of,” Gatson said. “Atlanta Public Schools has yet to take into consideration the grandparents, like me, who are raising their grandchildren. Instead of shipping us off to Slater, help us keep this school open.”
Thomasville Heights Elementary is currently operated by a partner organization, Purpose Built Schools Atlanta. At the town hall, APS officials said a district should not budget for schools operating with a population less than 100 students.
Dr. Nikkita Warfield, chief academic officer of Purpose Built Schools, said the potential closure is a disappointing prospect for all parties involved. “These conversations are hard,” Warfield said. “We were all working to avoid this outcome.”
Warfield says her organization’s work with Thomasville Heights Elementary led to the school becoming one of the state’s most improved. From 2016 to 2019, out-of-school suspensions decreased by 48%, proficiency scores for all subjects increased by 9%, and college readiness scores saw a bump from 40.8% to 56.3%, according to APS’ improvement plan.
Bernard Arnold, president of the parent teacher association at Slater Elementary, says that rezoning won’t be an easy fix. “We’re talking about entirely different neighborhoods here,” he said. “Slater has a culture and Thomasville has a culture, and I want each of you on this board to come down and see that for yourselves before you decide to force them upon one another.”
Arnold also says that there is a lack of transparency between parents, APS, and Purpose Built Schools. The latter announced Thomasville Heights’ potential closure prior to a vote from Atlanta Public Schools.
“How is the partner program able to close the school before the school board takes a vote,” Jones said.
APS first partnered with Purpose Built Schools in 2016. Under the contract, the two entities would work together to operate the Carver Cluster — Thomasville Heights Elementary, Slater Elementary, Price Middle School, and Carver High School — for a term of 14 years. Purpose Built Schools was allowed autonomy in making decisions tied to hiring of staff and other operations. The organization also regulated zoning that would keep students within the cluster, and stipulated that no school within the network should be closed without their consent
Local activist and New York Times best-selling author Kimberly Jones was among those in the crowd for the town hall. Jones called for the termination of Purpose Built Schools’ contract with APS. Jones, who writes about and has gone viral discussing racism’s impact on Black communities, says the model used by Purpose Built Schools is at the heart of this issue. The model, she says, marginalizes low-income Black families for the sake of a larger gentrification package, using the redevelopment of East Lake around Drew Charter School as an example.
According to Jones, after the demolition of East Lake Meadows public housing complex in the late 1990s, Drew Charter School was created with the purpose of providing a cradle-to-college education model for marginalized families in the mixed-income housing community. However, since 2011, the push for families wanting to live closer to Drew Charter came with a price. The population of low-income residents in East Lake decreased due to the upselling of homes, effectively pushing out legacy Black families. “Purpose Built Schools said that Drew Charter was its model [for Thomasville Heights], which is extremely disturbing because of what happened over in that community,” she said.
Today, 64% of students at Drew Charter are Black. Of those students, 38% come from low-income households, according to data from GreatSchools.
“We have very small class sizes at multiple schools throughout the city of Atlanta,” Jones said. “What’s the real reason why you all are so eager to close this school in this Black neighborhood?”
APS says that it plans to hold two public meetings in May and June before coming to a final decision. The board stated that, while these conversations hurt, it will continue to seek feedback from residents before the vote.
However, despite the district’s best efforts to ensure residents are heard, Jones and others are not sold on how effective those conversations will be as the deadline for relocation approaches.
“Now we’re here — a day late and a dollar short — still trying to figure out what to do with the families and this community,” she said. “It’s at the point that the strong are going to have to step up and do the right thing.”