By Rick Callihan

It’s time to redistrict and restructure our elementary schools

Did you know Dunwoody’s new $20 million fourth and fifth grade school on Womack Road sits 20 percent empty while much older elementary school buildings in the Dunwoody school cluster are severely over capacity?

This new school was built for the purpose of relieving the overcrowding at the older schools. But in classic DeKalb County School System fashion, a failure to make sensible decisions has three of our elementary schools still over-crowded and infested with portable trailer classrooms while new classrooms sit idle at Dunwoody Elementary.

According to the DeKalb school system’s most recent figures, Dunwoody Elementary is only 78 percent of capacity (200 empty desks) while Vanderlyn is 146 percent of capacity (over by 263 kids), Austin Elementary is 135 percent of its capacity and Chesnut is 121 percent of its capacity. And these three over-capacity schools are now only kindergarten through third grade!

So why, with a new state-of the-art school in Dunwoody with empty classrooms, do we have third graders spending their entire school day (except for lunch and when they have to walk indoors to use the restroom) in a rental trailer?

The reason is because the DeKalb school system refused to establish new attendance zones for Dunwoody’s elementary schools two years ago when the new Dunwoody Elementary was built. Instead of redistricting the Dunwoody area and keeping neighborhood schools as traditional kindergarten through fifth grade institutions, DCSS instead pulled fourth and fifth graders from three neighborhood schools and sent them to the new Dunwoody Elementary.

When Dunwoody Elementary was under construction a few years ago, DCSS presented a redistricting plan that changed attendance lines for the elementary schools. But after public meetings and heated discussions, DCSS withdrew the redistricting plan after some residents deemed the plan unfair.

Not unfair to children, however. No one ever discussed any negative repercussions in regards to quality of education for students being moved from one school to another. After all, the same textbooks would be used, many of the teachers would move as well. A big reason for public backlash against the plan came from homeowners assuming their home values would decrease significantly if their homes were zoned out of their current elementary school attendance zone.

I disagree home values would have changed much, but of course that was 2007 and those home values have dropped anyway. And besides, is it the school system’s responsibility to create sensible attendance zones (based on school capacity and population) or to protect property values? By not redistricting, home values ironically may have decreased, instead of home values decreasing due to redistricting. Would you now buy a home in a district knowing that your second grader and fourth grader would not even attend the same school?

DCSS has done nothing to improve our situation by creating a fourth -and fifth-grade school. We still have three overcrowded schools. Siblings can no longer attend elementary school together. Fewer students can walk to school, and hardly any students ride their bikes to school. Back when Austin and Vanderlyn were K-5 schools, the schools’ bike racks were full and overflow bikes were parked alongside. Now those bike racks are nearly empty.

Parents with a kid in grades K-3 and another in fourth or fifth grade now struggle with morning and afternoon schedules. Parents need to join two PTAs and divide their volunteer time between two elementary schools.

Many of you moved to Dunwoody not only for the convenient location, but due to the well-earned reputation of the schools. Nowadays online websites rate schools based on K-5 test scores. Since four of our elementary schools are not grades K-5, they will never show up in searches by potential homebuyers. This is not due to poorly performing schools, but due to the current segregation of fourth and fifth graders.

DeKalb needs to close some schools in the southern part of the county due to low attendance and other areas need redistricting, just as we need it here in Dunwoody. Last week DCSS announced ‘2020 Vision’, a master plan to describe the school system’s future needs, programs, and facilities. A sub-component of this master plan is redistricting and consolidation of schools countywide, hopefully including Dunwoody. The school system will host a few public meetings and offer surveys so make sure your voice is heard this time.

Lastly, don’t forget we are voting next week for the person who will represent District 1 (which includes all of Dunwoody) on the DeKalb County School Board. You may want to ask candidates their opinion on redistricting and making all our elementary schools grades K-5 again.

Dunwoody resident Rick Callihan is our local columnist for the Dunwoody Reporter. You can find his blog at http://www.dunwoodytalk.blogspot.com