Atlanta Facing Empty Seats In New Schools

By Karla Scoon Reid — September 17, 2003 5 min read
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Midway through a multimillion-dollar facilities upgrade that includes replacing and consolidating buildings, the Atlanta school district finds itself with empty seats.

One new elementary school under construction has a planned capacity of 576 students—but the school it will replace is serving just 128 students this year. Of the district’s 63 elementary schools, 25 currently fall short of the district’s desired 450-student enrollment minimum.

Space Aplenty
The Atlanta public school system’s preferred enrollment size for elementary schools ranges from a minimum of 450 pupils to a maximum of 600. Below are the new elementary schools that opened in the district over the past two years. Some of the new schools are housed in renovated school buildings. Three elementary schools were closed during the two-year period.
Elementary school Year opened 2003 enrollment* Planned capacity
Dobbs 2002 484 648
Adams Drive 2002 415 612
Miles 2003 311 648
Herndon 2003 406 576
Heritage 2002 597 612
Hope 2002 312 504
Slater 2003 496 612

*Enrollment is based on 15-day counts.

SOURCE: Atlanta Public Schools

District officials acknowledge that Atlanta’s student enrollment was shrinking when the five-year, $850 million facilities plan was adopted in 2000. They knew that, along with renovating and upgrading deteriorating and aging buildings, some schools would have to be closed.

Since 1995, the district’s enrollment has spiraled downward from 60,000 students to about 53,000 in 2002. This year, based on the district’s 15-day enrollment count, just 51,300 children showed up for classes.

But the rapid drop in enrollment in recent years is catching district officials off guard and spurring wide-ranging theories about the missing children. Bad planning. Shifting demographics. Gentrification. Relocation of poor families. Low student achievement. A liberal interdistrict school choice policy.

Educators, demographers, and others are debating those factors as the district wrestles with the prospect of closing more schools—a strategy that districts across the nation are using to meet budget constraints. (“Budget Woes Forcing Districts to Close Schools,” April 16, 2003.)

“We had to make what we believe were the best decisions in terms of the process and where the population would be,” Valerie Thomas, the executive director of facilities for the Atlanta schools, said of the district’s facilities plan. “None of us has a crystal ball.”

Unlike enrollment in the city school district, Atlanta’s population is growing for the first time in roughly 20 years. Yet most observers agree that the city’s new residents don’t include many school-age children. That’s why some critics believe the school system must take a second look at its building plans.

“It’s ridiculous,” said John S. Sherman, the president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Association. “There should be far greater outrage.”

Call for State Audit

The watchdog group, which monitors the county that includes Atlanta, filed a petition in Fulton County Superior Court on Sept. 9 to force a state audit of the school system because of per- pupil spending concerns. Mr. Sherman added that the group will ask the school system to halt new construction until the building program is independently reviewed.

Ms. Thomas stressed that the district reviews its building plan annually. She added that rezoning options will be presented to the school board in March to address the ever-changing student rolls. Meanwhile, the school board has hired a private firm to conduct a district management study.

Demographers, economists, architects, real estate agents, planners, and other experts were involved in crafting Atlanta’s facilities plan, which includes money for maintenance, safety, and building upgrades, Ms. Thomas said.

To adjust for the decreased number of students, the plan calls for the number of schools to drop to 86, from 97 three years ago. So far, eight schools have closed.

For its part, the Atlanta Committee for Public Education is impressed by the actions the board and district are taking to address facilities challenges.

Stanley Williams, the president of the nonprofit research and leadership group, noted that the board established a facilities commission and meets regularly with the Atlanta Housing Authority.

With so many unanswered questions about the low enrollment numbers, however, Mr. Williams said other factors merit careful review. He wondered whether private school enrollment is rising. And he questioned whether the neighborhoods built where the housing authority demolished low-income housing projects are attracting families with children.

No correlation exists between Atlanta’s declining student population and the redevelopment program, asserted Rick White, a spokesman for the housing authority. When the projects were demolished, he said, most people assumed that their occupants left the city.

But in fact, he said, the housing authority served about 16,000 families in 1995, when it began relocating residents and developing mixed-income housing. At the end of 2001, nearly 21,000 families were living in housing managed by the authority.

In addition, more people are moving to Atlanta, which has a population of 433,000. The city has added more than 16,000 residents since 2000, after the population remained fairly stagnant in the 1990s, according to estimates by the Atlanta Regional Commission.

New Atlantans, however, tend to be same-sex couples, childless couples, retirees, young adults—"anything but kids,” pointed out David S. Sawicki, a professor of city and regional planning at Georgia Tech University.

“Atlanta, like a lot of central cities, is exporting its families,” said Mr. Sawicki, who also is a consultant for the city schools. “The major housing development going on outside my [office] window is going to be childless.”

Emmett Johnson, the school board president, concedes that low test scores may have prompted parents to pull their children out of the city schools in the past.

Confident that the district’s recent achievement gains will prompt a turnaround in enrollment, Mr. Johnson said the district doesn’t want to be “caught where we don’t have adequate facilities.”

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