Atlanta opens $147M high school

Cost raises concern at Georgia’s most expensive high school while its principal aims to keep up with charters

A spiral staircase connects the parking deck with the main lobby at North Atlanta High School, a former IBM campus that cost $147 million to convert, in Atlanta, Monday.
Dustin Chambers/New York Times/Redux

A new high school built at a cost of $147 million opened Wednesday in Atlanta, prompting questions about priorities in education spending.

The new North Atlanta High School is the most expensive in the state of Georgia. It comprises a converted 11-story office building that once served some 5,000 IBM employees, and sits on a 56-acre lot in the Buckhead section of Atlanta, one of the South’s wealthiest communities. It's not short on amenities: a 900-car parking deck, state-of-the-art broadcast productions, a gun range, an 1,800-capacity gymnasium and a spring-fed lake.

For Atlanta Public Schools, the shiny new campus is a chance to move forward from a cheating scandal that led to the indictment of some 35 educators, including the former superintendent of the district. But at such a high cost – other new high schools in the area all cost under $51 million each, according to local reports. After adding in the cost of athletic facilities other area schools still came in at under $60 Million, still less than half the cost of North Atlanta. Residents and officials are concerned the return on investment won’t be worth the money they’ve shelled out.

"The main focus here needs to be, a) is this expenditure justified? and, b) how will this expenditure help get that high school from a 60- or 61-percent grad rate to a 90- or 95-percent?" said state Rep. Edward Lindsey. "These are questions parents and taxpayers need to be asking the school board."

Lindsey, who is an alumnus of North Atlanta and a resident in the area where the new school has been built, says there is great concern over how APS could build such an expensive school, which he referred to as a "Taj Mahal" during a local television interview, when the district has poor performance rates.

The school will serve about 1,400 students this year, and while the food court style cafeteria will likely be a hit with students, others are focused on getting the graduation rate up to par.

"The overall graduation rate for APS is in the low 50s and we spend among the top amount per pupil and the most in administrative costs in the state," Lindsey said. "Given its past history, past graduation rate, how much is spent per pupil, how much is going to administrative costs versus dollars in the classroom, it's legitimate for parents and taxers to ask, 'OK, what are we getting from this?'"

While there is controversy around the school's price tag, principal Howard E. Taylor told The New York Times it is a chance to show people a large, urban, public high school can still hold its own in a field increasingly giving way to charter schools.

It's also a very diverse school where nearly half of the 1,400 students are black, 27 percent white and 20 percent Latino. Some come from well-to-do families and some are homeless. More than 40 languages are spoken among the student population.

“If there was ever a model for an urban high school, this is it,” he told The New York Times.

Officials from the school district declined to comment for this article.

Dexter Mullins contributed to this report.

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