By Jody Steinberg

“Our school is an oxymoron,” says Cross Keys High School senior Maima Kiawu during Hands on Atlanta Day at her school. “We’ve got great people inside, but our building is horrible.”

Kiawu was among more than 150 students, alumni, faculty and community members who volunteered with 60 Newell-Rubbermaid employees for a day of campus beautification projects. As they raked, weeded, dug up pylons and hauled dirt, students spoke lovingly of their school, questioning why the DeKalb County School System has let their campus fall into disrepair.

“It’s very dilapidated. Everyone complains about the building. The renovation has been talked about since before we got here over four years ago,” said senior Haddy Gussama, expressing the common belief that school system is making empty promises. This year, classes were relocated so that renovation could begin, but most days, the construction site is silent. The pending renovation is now more inconvenience than source of hope, Gussama said. The walls between the temporary art and math classrooms are so thin, “While you’re learning matrixes for Trigonometry, you can hear the art class talking.”

Recent media attention about the state of disrepair at the school led the Newell-Rubbermaid team to consider Cross Keys as a job site for their annual Hands on Atlanta Day, explained Jocelyn Schiedel, senior manager for Corporate Community Outsourcing, which managed the project for Newell. And, as students keep saying, it was the people who cinched the deal.

A number of work sites were considered, but Newell chose Cross Keys because of their enthusiasm, the obvious need, and the capacity to accommodate a lot of volunteers. “The thing that set Cross Keys apart was the willingness of teachers and administration to work with us,” said Schiedel. “They care so deeply for the school and the kids. It was important to choose Cross Keys, even knowing full well we couldn’t help enough.”

That need also motivated student volunteers to improve their school on a Saturday. Monday through Friday, they see crumbling bathrooms, leaky roofs, air conditioners that can only turn on by reaching into the ceiling with rulers, holes in the floors and worse: the knowledge that “everyone makes fun of Cross Keys.” Physical conditions obscure the fact that CKHS has made AYP for three consecutive years, in spite of the fact that a majority of students are non-native English speakers.

“Cross Keys has a lot of good students who are going somewhere in their lives, but not a lot of people realize that, because they judge us by [the appearance of] the school,” said Kiawu. “If we can do something to improve our school, we should.”