By Jody Steinberg

It started in mid July with the arrival of three quadruple-size modular classrooms. Then the Evergreen Construction trailer arrived. By the end of the month, half the fourth wing of Cross Keys High School had been fenced off, and all valuable assets removed from the building and stored.

Demolition permits have been issued, building and HVAC permits are in process, materials ordered, and contractors mobilized. After years of neglect, numerous false starts and an outpouring of community frustration, the renovation at Cross Keys has begun.

The frustration over the deterioration at the 51-year-old Brookhaven campus and hope for the renovation have become catalysts for renewed community interest in the school. Education advocates and bloggers, teachers, alumni, and local businesses blame the DeKalb County School System for allowing the campus to decline because the predominantly immigrant population served by the school doesn’t make enough noise to get attention, so those groups realize it’s up to them to revitalize Cross Keys.

“It’s so egregious what the level of neglect has been at Cross Keys,” said Kim Gokce, the president of the HillsDale Neighborhood Association. A champion of Cross Keys and neighboring Woodward Elementary, he plans to strengthen the community’s connection to his two preschoolers’ future schools.

“Every day that I interact with the Cross Keys students and faculty, I am more amazed at their quality and more frustrated at their status. This renovation presents an ideal opportunity to forever change the perceptions that are out of date and in some cases hurtful and wrong about Cross Keys,” he said.

Cross Keys and Woodward share more than 40 acres of prime property between North Druid Hills Road and Buford Highway, across the street from affluent Lenox Park and only minutes from Buckhead, yet they are Title I schools, meaning most of the students come from low-income households and qualify for free lunch. They also come from non-English-speaking homes with working-class parents.

“For many of the parents, it’s food on the table or PTA meetings, and that’s hard,” said Abdella Saeed, a 2006 graduate of Cross Keys, who understands firsthand the challenges immigrant families face. He and classmate Ramone Gomez organized an alumni barbecue Aug. 1 that drew about 50 people, many of whom expressed interest in giving back to their alma mater. “When you don’t have the support of the parents, there’s a disconnect. I wanted to make the connection between the school and the alumni, who really want to help out.”

Aparna Bhattacharyya of the Class of 1989 bristles when she hears people refer to the “predominantly Hispanic” student population at Cross Keys, which serves more than 65 nationalities. And she said most of them are here legally.

“The campus was bad when we were there, and it’s worse now,” said Bhattacharyya, who toured the school with other alumni Sunday. The group was shocked and saddened that the school has become so dilapidated, she said, but the tour increased their eagerness to give back.

“By no means would I classify Cross Keys as dilapidated,” said Pat Pope, the school system’s chief operations officer. “It’s a sound structure and a good environment for a renovation.”

Pope indicated that frustration with the design team of teachers, administrators, students and parents played a part in the first architect quitting the project.

“The community would never come to a consensus on design,” she said.

Her statement baffled team representatives, who only wanted to know whether their suggestions had been received.

“We’ve incorporated many of the things they asked for, and we think they’re good ideas,” Pope said.

The $20 million renovation, to be implemented in five stages and completed by December 2010, will encompass every wing of the school. All of the classrooms and restrooms will be upgraded. More prominent signage and a user-friendly drive will improve the entrance. No structures will be demolished, but all of the interior spaces, starting with classrooms, will be gutted so ceilings, drywall, lighting, floors, doors and the HVAC systems can be replaced.

Construction started on one half of the fourth hall, which will be expanded to incorporate new career technology classrooms. Public spaces, including the cafeteria, media center and gym, will be renovated next summer.

With the dissolution of High School of Technology North, Cross Keys expanded its curriculum to incorporate additional career technology programs, from dental hygiene to computer technology, said Juan Moore, the assistant principal and construction liaison.

Some programs will be in the quadruple portables until the new classrooms are ready, at which time the automotive program will come on board. Then the quads will be reconfigured to four classrooms each, making it possible to renovate one full wing at a time.

Pope expects final plans to be public and posted online by mid-August. “I ask everyone to be patient,” she said. “Construction and renovation don’t happen overnight.”

“We’re happy that the school’s getting the much-needed attention it deserves. … We gained so much from Cross Keys that we want to give something back,” said Bhattacharyya, who plans to develop a mentoring program. “We’re really committed to finding a way we can help the school. I don’t think people realize what Cross Keys has to offer.”