A couple weeks ago I visited Oakcliff Traditional Theme School in Doraville, and I was incredibly impressed with what I saw. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the different work samples and teaching ideas that I saw displayed throughout the school, and I couldn’t help thinking that high school makes learning a bit too sterile. I left feeling inspired by ideas for my own classroom, as well as a few ideas for the Cross Keys cluster as a whole.

I want to share what I saw using both pictures and words because I believe Oakcliff Traditional Theme School is one of the hidden gems of Doraville — if not DeKalb County.

Oakcliff Traditional Theme School is working on becoming a STEM school by focusing on the five elements of the Engineering Design Process: Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, Improve.
What Is A Theme School?

A theme school is commonly defined as a school that exists “to provide educational excellence for all students by creating a collaborative environment that empowers students, parents, staff, and community members to ignite a lifetime desire and love of learning through project-based learning, rigorous curriculum, and family involvement.”

From what I could tell, here are the main differences (on paper) between Oakcliff and the other elementary schools in the cluster:

  1. Parents at Oakcliff Elementary are required to agree to a contract which includes serving 18 volunteer hours a year.
  2. This school is open to students within the Pleasantdale, Cary Reynolds, and Dresden ES attendance zones.
  3. Students can attend only if space is available (first-come-first serve), but once accepted, can continue throughout their elementary school years.
  4. Students can be denied re-enrollment if the conditions of the contract are not met during the school year.

A Tour of Oakcliff Elementary

Teachers at Oakcliff engage in frequent professional collaboration, and, in fact, have an entire classroom dedicated for these meetings. On the right wall there are charts displayed which exhibit the progress of each class (pictured below) as well as Response to Intervention charts. This professional development room also contains a “Word Wall” of commonly used ideas in order to promote discussion and a clear focus (also pictured below). Among these are the words “Anchor Chart,” “Interactive Journal,” and “Guided Reading.”

In addition to this emphasis on collaborative planning for teachers, the school also employs activity-based learning which allows students to access different curricula using one activity, theme, or project. In one hallway I passed through a super-hero exhibit where students had used this theme to explore different mathematical and literary ideas.


In another part of the school I observed one art teacher using Kandinsky and Van Gogh to teach various painting concepts to third graders. When we walked into her room, the calm classical music greeted us warmly as we watched the students work on their own “modern masterpieces.”

Outside, we walked past the community garden where many teachers and their classes have their own plot of vegetables and flowers that they tend throughout the school year. Kids played happily on the basketball court on the other side of the building. In the front of the school, parents walked in to participate in their child’s classroom or various places in the school as a part of their contracted volunteer hours.

What I observed at Principal Paschall’s school was a true community school, nestled within a quiet middle-class neighborhood in the city of Doraville.

But I couldn’t help but feel envious of the things that these children are afforded, while across town the children at Cary Reynolds ES and Dresden ES are crammed into trailers and deprived of basic things like easy access to bathrooms.


The students at Oakcliff are in a similar demographic to the children at Cary Reynolds and the other Cross Keys cluster elementary schools – mostly Hispanic and mostly on free-or-reduced-lunch plans, so the perceived inequities are not based on race or class. Yet they still exist.

What Can Be Done?

In one of my previous posts, I outlined one suggestion to address the overcrowding in Region 1 (specifically the Cross Keys cluster). In that article, I discussed the possibility of making Oakcliff Theme School into a traditional elementary school which would then feed into the proposed Doraville High School.

Even though this still might end up being a good solution for the district, I’d love to find a way to preserve this incredible school and expand the number of students it serves. The 2014-2015 numbers for FTE (full-time enrollment) were just over 730 students (with capacity for approximately 760). There is also plenty of room to place a couple quads (4-8 temporary classrooms with a hallway and restroom facilities) on the grounds in order to accommodate this expanded enrollment — without taking away from the community garden or the school basketball courts. (Using Oakcliff to relieve overcrowding is something that has been proposed in the past. To read more about that 2011 idea, click here.)

One issue that has been raised is that Oakcliff is not ADA accessible since it has three floors and no elevators or lifts. This is currently an issue that I believe needs to be addressed — regardless of student enrollment expansion — so that students with physical disabilities can attend this school and get the same opportunities as the students who currently attend. If the school expanded to include quads on their premises, I don’t see this impediment being something additional to the one that currently exists for physically disabled students.

Even if Oakcliff is not able to open its doors to more students from the community by housing a couple quads on their premises, I will still highly recommend this school to my neighbors and friends. (I might even try to get my own daughters into Oakcliff in a couple years since they have a lottery-funded pre-K at their school.)

To see how your child might be able to attend Oakcliff, or to find out more information about the school, visit the website: http://www.oakcliffes.dekalb.k12.ga.us/Default.aspx.

*A HUGE thank you to Dr. Paschall for giving me a lovely tour of Oakcliff Traditional Theme School and for inspiring me to bring some of the school’s ideas into the high school classroom!