Another site has been selected for a new school in the DeKalb County School District: the former Briarcliff High School location will be the site for the new Cross Keys High School.

No, this isn’t ideal. The ideal decision could’ve happened five years ago, but it didn’t because there wasn’t the political will to do so. Which brings us to April 2018. The DCSD Planning Department was left with several choices, none of which could’ve pleased everybody.

While the response from the district during the site selection process and after the site selection was made did not include all recommendations for a robust community input process and a final report, the district did issue statements that went into more detail than previously done.

I know this site is an unpleasant idea for some people, so I want to try to offer some different ways to think about how the Briarcliff location was the best possible decision for the greatest number of students:

1. The Briarcliff site is the most cost-effective choice. The parcels of land DCSD was considering were selling for close to $50 million. There’s no way that Briarcliff would sell for close to that much (estimates were that it would sell for between $20 and $30 million).

The school district would’ve spent over $100 million on one high school and would’ve had to use general funds and borrow against future SPLOST VI (which may or may not pass 4 years from now) and/or reduce and cut spending to other projects. There are hundreds of capital improvements needed around the county. This would’ve been financially stupid.

2. The only properties the district was even considering were apartment complexes. This would’ve been third time that DCSD would’ve torn down an apartment complex with majority Latino residents. They tore down an apartment next door to Chamblee Charter High School a few years ago; they tore down Shallowford Gardens last summer for an elementary school; and they were thinking of demolishing 1-3 apartments in Brookhaven for the new Cross Keys High School.

It cannot be a best practice to tear down student homes in order to build schools. Studies repeatedly show that people who are displaced when their apartments or homes are suddenly sold oftentimes end up living in “overcrowded apartments, shelters or even [become] homeless” (read more here). Generally speaking, residents end up in worse types of housing or more expensive housing, and the effects of displacement are destabilizing to families and destructive to communities.

School districts do not need to be solving one issue (i.e. overcrowding) by creating another (i.e. displacement).

If the district had been seriously considering eminent domain on underutilized commercial spaces, then perhaps the school could’ve been located on the Buford Highway side of I-85. Yet this was not even on the table (plus it too would likely have been prohibitively expensive as well).

Counterarguments
Argument: This property is going to have horrible traffic and it’s going to have students coming from the other side of the highway.
Response: This property isn’t ideal, but it is not unprecedented to locate a school that has students coming from across a highway.

1. Cross Keys has students coming from 10 miles away, crossing I-285 (14 lanes across).
2. Lakeside has students coming from outside of I-285 (14 lanes across).
3. Dunwoody has students coming from the other side of Highway 141 (6 lanes across).

Traffic doesn’t concern me in the same way that it concerns many of those who raised their voices against it. I worked at Berkmar High School for four years and we had 43,800 cars and 28,800 cars coming from each direction around a high school with 3500 students. Traffic wasn’t a major concern, and it shouldn’t be for the Briarcliff location (buses are arriving and leaving before the major rush hours AND there are going to be 1000 fewer students at the high school).

intersection

Additionally, this property will help alleviate overcrowding at Lakeside High School and Cross Keys High School and (possibly) parts of Druid Hills High School.

Argument: These apartments are going to be torn down anyway, so it might as well be a school.
Response: This has been the basis for numerous stupid decisions by district staff over the last decade. The district has used that as the excuse for not fixing overcrowding and now they want to use it as the excuse for tearing down student homes.

From my conversations with district staff, no one has a specialization or focus area on urban development/design, city planning, gentrification, and economic development. To make decisions based off of a faulty logic has been detrimental to the district and this community in the past.

This is a false dichotomy — eg. the apartment property will either be a school or super expensive town homes — and school planning decisions shouldn’t be made relying on such a faulty premise.

Argument: This location is going to be less walkable for residents along Buford Highway than the current location.
Response: Yes, this is true for a limited number of residents in apartments within a mile of Cross Keys High School. However, if the district had built on the sites it was considering, many of those students would have lost their homes, thereby making it a moot point. Once displaced, they likely would no longer have lived in the area or the district.

Additionally, the walking conditions aren’t exactly ideal for residents along Buford Highway. The AJC reported that “the worst two roads in Atlanta for pedestrian collisions since 2003 are Fulton County’s Peachtree Street, with 178, and DeKalb’s portion of Buford Highway, with 154” (read more here). Most deaths occur while not in a crosswalk.

In some areas, GDOT has created sidewalks and mid-blocks crossings along Buford Highway.

pedestrian crossing 2.jpeg
But in other areas, there are dirt paths, no sidewalks, and other dangerous walking conditions.
Buford Highway south of Clairmont
pedestrian crossing 3.jpeg

pedestrian crossing.jpeg

Here is a short documentary my students made a couple years ago (without my knowledge). When I saw it, I was horrified that they were out there walking around filming this with cars whizzing by at 60 mph. But this isn’t something new for them — they do this every day.

Many families will use MARTA in order to reach the Briarcliff location — just as they do to reach Adams Stadium every time there is a sporting (or, in the past, a graduation) event. Many families already have to use MARTA, the Royal Bus (private bus line), or a taxi to reach the current Cross Keys High School — especially since they’re coming from up to 10 miles away.

Yes, the switch to Briarcliff will be more difficult for the apartments and neighborhoods immediately surrounding Cross Keys High School, but again, for many, this move will not be markedly worse as far as transportation is concerned.

The end of an era?
I’m not going to pretend as if I don’t understand how difficult this is going to be for many people. The Cross Keys cluster is an incredible community of families and students who, although they have been segregated and neglected by the school district for more than a decade, have thrived despite the situation.

Communities are resilient and resourceful and they make the best of any situation, and the 10 mile long, gerrymandered Cross Keys cluster — like many segregated school clusters — has found success and opportunity and close community despite the setbacks. The community has become tight-knit and comfortable. Changing this is going to be difficult, but that isn’t a reason to continue this “separate but equal” myth that strangely persists even today, 50 years after Brown vs. Board of Education.

The new communities that will be forged and the new friendships and support systems that will arise are worth these growing pains towards a more just and equitable education system for DeKalb County Schools. It will have its challenges.

But if we look at national research, we know that schools — like the one that will be created at the Briarcliff location — will improve the quality of education for all of DeKalb’s students. Would I have liked for that to have occurred on the Buford Highway side of I-85? Yes. That would’ve had to be done years ago if it was going to happen the right and affordable way.

But given the actual world of possibilities, however, this seems as if it was the choice that was actually going to produce the greatest outcome for the greatest number of students.

That’s how we should be making our decisions as a district.