By Michael Jacobs

michaeljacobs@reporternewspapers.net

Fourteen 2-year-olds sit on a carpet in a church classroom, learning an Earth Day-related lesson about recycling and making Earth happy.

Instead of talking about the planet Earth and recycling, their teacher is showing them the “recicla” bin and pointing to a poster of “Mi Planeta tierra,” but this is not a class of Central American immigrants. The children are immersed in a special preschool program to make Spanish as natural to them as their native English language.

Language immersion is the purpose and the process of Tabula Rasa — The Language Academy, a preschool based at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in western Sandy Springs. Tabula Rasa’s plans to expand into elementary education, launched this year with a state-certified kindergarten program, are behind the church’s proposal to expand by 2,000 square feet.

At the school’s request, the Sandy Springs City Council at its April 21 meeting deferred the application for the expansion and for a new use permit allowing the school to enroll 390 children until June 16.

Like private school expansions proposed last year in Sandy Springs by Holy Spirit Preparatory School (approved) and The Epstein School (withdrawn), Tabula Rasa’s growth has met neighborhood opposition focused on traffic, past promises, the city’s Comprehensive Plan, and the proper relationship between schools and the areas they call home.

One adjacent homeowner called the academy a “Pandora’s box” of increased traffic and continued growth that would disturb the residential area.

According to a letter submitted to the City Council in opposition to Tabula Rasa’s plans by Matthew and Rebecca Eads, who live near the church, the school’s expansion application faces nearly unanimous written opposition from its immediate neighbors on Riverside Drive, Foxridge and Fair Oaks Manor.

The Eads letter cites the heavy traffic coming off I-285 at rush hour, including many vehicles that use the church parking lot to make a U-turn; the encroachment of a for-profit school into a residential neighborhood; and the loss of trust in the school.

Tabula Rasa, founded in Cobb County in December 2001 by Besa Tarazhi, received a use permit to move to the church in July 2007. That permit allowed the school to have 60 students.

Tarazhi acknowledges that the school enrolls 157 children from ages 1 to kindergarten but says no more than 60 are at the school at any time.

Members of the Sandy Springs Planning Commission, hearing the expansion application March 19, said that was a slippery, envelope-pushing interpretation of the use permit. But school attorney Ellen Smith told the City Council on April 21, “We currently operate within our existing use permit.”

The controversy over the expansion and use permit also led to questions about the state Bright From the Start licensing of the preschool. The preschool operates under an exemption based on not keeping any child more than four hours a day, but Kimberly Mitchem-Rasmussen submitted a statement to the state licensing agency saying her daughter, as well as other children, stayed six hours a day to remain on the same schedule as her kindergartner son.

During a tour April 23 of the school, housed in the northern wing of the church, Tarazhi and the head of the school’s parents committee, Rebecca Hunter, said the opposition to the expansion caught them off-guard. They said the school offers a unique educational program that is an asset to Sandy Springs, where both of them live.

Some of the confusion over the school, they said, comes from its complexity as a preschool, a kindergarten and an after-school program.

The kindergarten, which alternates days between instruction in English and in Spanish, operates five days a week. The preschool — a mother’s-morning-out program for 1-year-olds, plus classes for 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds, all using an immersion approach in Spanish or French — runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; children attend two to five days a week. Some 3- and 4-year-olds who attend other preschools in the morning go to Tabula Rasa two days per week from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. for the language program. And some kindergartners and first-graders attend an after-school program at Tabula Rasa from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. four days a week. There also is a Saturday program from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

The kindergarten class has state certification. The preschool, which now meets state regulations as long as children don’t stay more than four hours, is seeking full licensing.

Tarazhi’s plan is to add first grade in the fall if enough families sign up, then, if the expansion is approved, to add a grade a year until Tabula Rasa is a full elementary school, serving kindergarten through fifth grade.

“What they learn day after day, I might learn in a year,” Hunter said. “It’s amazing at this age, the things they can absorb.”

The proposed use permit would allow the school to enroll as many as 390 children, including 200 at any time. Tarazhi said that permit would be sufficient for the school if it ran through fifth grade, so Tabula Rasa would not have to return to the city again in a few years.

Because of the economy, she said, the school expects enrollment to drop this fall.

Smith said the school sought the deferral to draft a set of conditions acceptable to the neighbors. “We are willing to work on the number of enrollment.”

Staff writer Amy Wenk contributed to this report.