By Jody Steinberg

“The school cannot live apart from the community.” That motto of the DeKalb County School System was challenged during a “consolidation and redistricting” meeting held at the Heritage Center on April 14.

Intended to announce consolidation plans for area schools, the meeting west of Brookhaven was hijacked by North DeKalb residents protesting plans to launch a public U.S. Marine Corps high school on the Heritage campus with up to 150 students in August, ultimately growing to 650.

Residential roads approaching Heritage were lined with cars on both sides, and yard signs declared, “Right School, Wrong Location.”

Community blogs and the Web site cite traffic congestion, inadequate outdoor space for training programs and a campus that is too small for the purpose as reasons that Heritage, a former elementary school off Briarcliff Road about a half-mile from Lakeside High School, is the wrong location.

“I’m appealing to you tonight to work with us for one year,” DeKalb Superintendent Crawford Lewis told a crowd of more than 200 people crammed into the Heritage cafeteria. “This partnership is the beginning of the DeKalb school system thinking outside the box. We’re going to shake things up, and we are going to move the (Marine) program here. I’m asking the Board of Education to place this program here for one year.”

The USMC Academy will combine discipline and structure for capable but struggling students, using a curriculum focused on math and science, and will add a program unique in Georgia to Lewis’ prized school choice program. Students who attend the academy will will not have to enlist in the military.

The Marines required that the school have its own campus, and Heritage is in the best shape to be used with the smallest upfront investment, Lewis said. His repeated emphasis that Heritage will be only a temporary location was news to most who have followed the proposal; the site had appeared to be in the academy’s long-term plans.

Merger plans for Heritage, DeKalb Elementary School of the Arts, DeKalb School of the Arts and Elizabeth Andrews High School (formerly Open Campus) were announced before the comment period.

Citizens voiced concerns about the Marine high school, including the traffic-congested Briarcliff Road corridor, the impact on Charles McDaniels park, the validity of partnering with the military, the lack of public input into the decision-making process and the details of the memorandum of agreement the school system will sign with the Marine Corps.

While many attendees agreed with the idea of the academy, others vehemently objected.

Maureen Marback questioned the funding sources and asked: “Why do we need a school that teaches warfare? Why can’t we teach peace or environmental studies?”

Erin Chernow, who lives next door to the school, asked whether the agreement will lock in a permanent location for the school and whether the administration has confirmed sufficient student interest. Afterward, Chernow and neighbor Lora Weiss reiterated the need for a traffic study and a traffic flow plan for buses.

Only a few parents from the schools facing consolidation got to speak about the impact on the education at Heritage, which serves 41 children ages 3 to 12 with disabilities, and Margaret Harris, which has 53 high school students with severe cognitive disabilities. The students require a significant level of services, and the merger of the two programs will consolidate about 100 administrators, teachers, therapists and support staff to reduce expenses.

Stephanie Shapiro, who has two children at Heritage, expressed dismay at having students from ages 3 to 22 in the same school.