Parents object to Atlanta school merger at public hearing

Sharon Gadson speaks at a hearing about merging two Atlanta elementary schools. She's raising her granddaughter, who attends a school scheduled to close. (screenshot)

Atlanta Public Schools officials are considering merging two elementary schools. The district has proposed closing Thomasville Heights Elementary in southeast Atlanta at the end of this school year due to the expected demolition of the nearby Forest Cove apartment complex. Thomasville students would attend Slater Elementary, just a few miles away.

Both schools are managed by a nonprofit called Purpose Built Schools Atlanta. The organization has a ten-year contract with APS as part of a turnaround strategy started under former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen.

The school board held a public hearing Monday to get feedback from the community.

“Whenever there is a discussion regarding school closure, never is that an easy one,” APS Superintendent Lisa Herring acknowledged at the beginning of the hearing.  

When APS initially proposed the merger, Purpose Built laid off dozens of employees from both schools. The organization said they had to let qualified staff go so they’d have time to sign teaching contracts with a school district before the year ends.

But some parents who showed up to Monday’s hearing were upset they weren’t asked for input before staff, including Slater’s principal, were let go.

Dr. Nakita Warfield, Purpose Built’s Chief Academic Officer, tried to reassure them.

“Everything that we do, we do to ensure the very best outcomes for our students,” she said. “Sometimes the right decision is also the hardest decision.”

Parents, though, pleaded for the chance to give more feedback.

“Why should Purpose Built not have to hear the people, hear anybody, and just make decisions without even thinking about the parents or the children?” said Bernard Arnold, Slater’s PTA president. He said merging Thomasville and Slater would be like combining two different cultures.

“Our school had a culture that was working,” he said.

Parent Kimberly Dukes urged the school board to reconsider the district’s contract with Purpose Built.

“I have six black boys that have attended Purpose Built schools,” she said. “I have a ninth grader that’s reading on a second-grade level and I fight every day to make sure he’s ok.”

Sharon Gadson wasn’t moved either. She’s raising her granddaughter, who attends Thomasville. Gadson lives near the school, but not in Forest Cove. She also doesn’t have a car.

“What if something happens to my baby over there at Slater?” she asked the school board. “How am I going to get to her? Thomasville is accessible to me and mine.”

There will be two more public hearings during the board’s May and June meetings before any official action is taken.

A note of disclosure: The Atlanta Board of Education holds WABE’s broadcast license.