Going The Wrong Way In Atlanta
Yesterday's New York Times contained an article about the latest attempt to reform Atlanta's public schools: an eleven-story high school costing about four times as much as the average Southern high school. The city plans to move North Atlanta High, one of the city's more racially diverse high schools, from its existing site in quasi-suburban Buckhead to a larger building at the edge of town. According to the Times story, Atlanta politicians believe 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."
But there is nothing "urban" about the site of this school- a 56-acre wooded plot formerly used as offices for IBM. From my walkability-oriented perspective, this is a site spectacularly unfit for a public school. The street where the school will be located (Northside Parkway) is five lanes wide and has no sidewalks; cars typically speed by at about 40-50 miles per hour. (I grew up about a mile from the school site, and drive at about that speed). Moreover, the site's Walkscore is an underwhelming 22, and there is no visible housing on this portion of Northside Parkway. Thus, I suspect this is a school that absolutely no one will walk to. (To be fair, there is regular city bus service). Rather than being a center of a neighborhood, this school will be an island of people in a sea of cars, generating traffic congestion and pollution by students and employees forced to drive there. In sum, the new North Atlanta High is "school sprawl" at its worst.
Presumably, city planners believed that the school's shiny new facililties compensate for its environmental disadvantages. But the record of desegregation in Kansas City shows that a new, expensive school is unlikely to be any more educationally successful than older neighborhood schools. In the 1990s, Kansas City sought to lure white parents to its schools by building luxurious new schools with amenities such as indoor swimming pools and zoos. This experiment failed in its major goals, the schools did not become more racially integrated, nor did test scores improve. And now that its money has run out, the district may have to close many of its schools.
So what's the alternative? From an urban design perspective, schools should be walkable- that is, in real neighborhoods with calmer streets full of housing.
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