ATLANTA — The most expensive public high school ever built in Georgia opens Wednesday in an old I.B.M. office building.
With 11 stories, a 900-car parking deck and views fit for a corporate executive, the school, North Atlanta High, looks very much like the fancy office buildings and glittery shopping strips that populate its Buckhead community. The school cost about $147 million. That is small change compared with the Robert F. Kennedy high school complex in Los Angeles, built in 2010 for $578 million — a figure critics liked to point out was more expensive than Beijing’s Olympic stadium.
But in the Deep South, where the median cost of a new high school is $38.5 million, it might as well be the Taj Mahal. As a result, some in this antigovernment, tax-sensitive part of the country are grumbling, especially since the project was $50 million over its original budget. “The raw numbers themselves in terms of the cost of construction should give pause to any taxpayer,” said Edward Lindsey, a lawyer and a Republican member of the Georgia House of Representatives.
But for the Atlanta Public Schools, which are just beginning to recover from a cheating scandal that in March brought indictments against 35 educators, including a former superintendent, the shining new school is being pitched as an important step toward redemption. About 48,400 students will attend public school in Atlanta this year, about 400 fewer than last year. “We have a special obligation here,” said Howard E. Taylor, the new principal. “The district is digging out of a historic crisis.”
He and other educators say that the new school building is an opportunity to show that a large, urban public high school can be a viable alternative to the rising tide of charter schools, voucher systems and private education. Some of the 1,400 students who will attend the school this year come from the wealthiest families in the region, but others, Mr. Taylor said, are homeless. Nearly half are black. About 27 percent are white and 20 percent are Hispanic. They speak more than 40 languages. “If there was ever a model for an urban high school, this is it,” he said.
The goal is to move the school from its graduation rate of about 61 percent — a rate so low it helped lead to the ouster of top administrators last fall — to 90 percent. The amenities should help. There are a performing arts complex, a broadcast and video center, a cafeteria that looks like a food court, and a rifle range for the shooting team and military programs. The gymnasium can seat 1,800 people. In the classroom, the school offers an extensive list of advanced placement, international studies and business courses. “Hopefully, the academics will be as good as the building,” said Regine Zuber, touring the school with her daughter, Amanda Stevens, 14, this week.
Transforming a 1977 office building that once held about 5,000 workers into a functional and safe high school designed to eventually hold 2,400 was challenging. Atlanta planners toured two high schools in New York City and studied other large schools, but nothing quite matched the challenges of a concrete edifice on a wooded 56-acre plot of land.
Security was paramount. Fences had to be added around the spring-fed lake that borders part of the school. A system had to be devised to control the 17 building’s entrances. Impact-proof safety glass was installed in the floor-to-ceiling windows, and 423 security cameras were tucked into stairwells and hallways, said Jere J. Smith III, the district’s director of capital improvements.
He deflected criticism of the school’s price. The land, bought in 2011, cost $55.3 million and was a relative bargain driven by recession-era corporate downsizing. Construction was hampered by asbestos and problems with the quality of soil and the abundance of granite on the site. Labor costs were higher than expected.
The cost seems fine to some parents, who say that Buckhead residents live in one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the South and many pay plenty in taxes. “This is a nice gift to the Buckhead area from the state of Georgia for all the money we send them,” said Jennifer Salberg-Kopelman, whose daughter will be entering the 11th grade. At an open house Tuesday, students were excited. The main criticism seemed to be something that vexes most people who live or work in high-rise buildings. “My only advice is to invest in better elevators,” said Mariana Ryes, a sophomore. “There is no way I am going to get to my classes on time in these.”
article by Kim Severson via nytimes.com; Alan Blinder contributed research.