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Condemned apartment complex leads to Atlanta elementary school's closure

At least 50 teachers and staff were laid off, Purpose Built Schools Atlanta says.

ATLANTA — Controversy is growing around the closure of an Atlanta school, and dozens of teachers stand to lose their jobs as part of the fallout. Parents in Southeast Atlanta are frustrated and feel like they were left out of the process.

It all stems from the run-down Forest Cove Apartment Complex, which was condemned by an Atlanta municipal judge in December. Residents reported dilapidated conditions for years and said they were promised improvements that never materialized. More than 200 families were affected and must be relocated, according to officials with the City of Atlanta. 

That, in turn, has now forced the closure of Thomasville Heights Elementary School, because so many of the school's students lived at Forest Cove. According to Purpose Built Schools Atlanta, which owns Thomasville Heights, 75% of students who attend the school live at Forest Cove. The 60 students remaining at the school will go to Slater Elementary School, located about four miles from Thomasville Heights Elementary, next year. 

Purpose Built Schools Atlanta also owns Slater, Price Middle School and Carver STEAM Academy. The schools, which were some of the lowest-performing in Atlanta Public Schools, were taken over by PBSA. On Friday, Slater parents rallied outside Price Middle School, calling for more communication from school officials. 

“Nothing was said to us," Bernard Arnold, Slater's PTA President, said. "We don’t have any power so to speak. That’s why we’re out here. We need some policy, we need policy to protect teachers and policy to protect the people because the people need to be able to have a voice and change.”

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Arnold argues students and staff have been through so much change recently, and school officials missed an opportunity to even out the teacher-to-student ratio. 

“Without us, without the kids, they don’t have schools," Arnold said. "Why make a change if something works? If the wheel’s not broken, don’t fix it. We just came from two years of COVID-19. They’ve been through a lot.”

As part of the merger, 50 teachers and staff will lose their jobs, according to PBSA. It's left parents like Monique Nunnally feeling numb to the future of their children's schools. 

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"What protections do teachers have, not just these teachers, but any teachers that come in our neighborhood? How will we keep stable schools in our neighborhood? How do we keep families engaged?" Nunnally posed. "We need choice and voice, it’s about the process. I think this whole community will need some serious, in-depth support from all providers.”

Nunnally said she's spoken to some Forest Cove families, who have recalled finding rats in baby cribs and ovens. Beer cans and cigarettes litter the street between Forest Cove and Thomasville Heights Elementary.

"It’s a tragedy for the people who live in Forest Cove and the Thomasville Heights community," Greg Giornelli, president and CEO of PBSA, said. "They’re being forced out of their apartments and relocated. Their homes are being torn down. We worked really hard to avoid this situation. We will have higher numbers of staff, teachers at the new Slater. We will have lower classroom sizes, more enrichments for kids, more STEM programming and more interventions.”

Giornelli said PBSA could lose a total of 300 students because of the Forest Cove situation. He promised Thomasville Heights Elementary School would eventually reopen, but the landscape could look completely different. New homes are popping up regularly and gentrification is moving through the community. Nunnally said she wouldn't be surprised if some Forest Cove families never came back.

"The premise of a lot of this work is that they are coming back," Nunnally said. "But if you’ve been through the kind of trauma they have, would you? Would you want to remember that and you couldn’t do anything about it? Gunshots coming into your home and telling your baby girl we don’t have anywhere to go?”

A town hall is scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Slater Elementary, and parents are eager to speak with school officials about the next steps. 

Meanwhile, the City of Atlanta continues to work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, along with other local organizations, to relocate Forest Cove families, demolish the old complex and build new development in its place. Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens issued an administrative order, directing funding to help Forest Cove residents. Dickens said a significant investment in affordable housing would help make sure a situation like Forest Cove never happened again.

 

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