Thoughts on Our New School

It looks like this is the model for our new elementary school... right next to our Historic District. I'm not sure this is much better than the strip mall it's going to replace.  Here are some of my musings on our new elementary school...

View from Ison Dr. Imagine this view from Alpharetta St.
I'm not sure the side of the new school is much of an improvement.

School Architecture - A school should be more than a box where we house our kids during the day... it should inspire learning.  It should not look like a dorm or an office building or an apartment building.  When you see it, you should be able to tell that it is a school.  That's not something that we see much of these days. Milton High comes to mind as good architecture for a school.

The school we are getting will be a cookie cutter version that Fulton County is using quite frequently these days.  It will be the same as Ison Springs Elementary and Lake Forest Elementary in Sandy Springs.  The architect architect was Collins Cooper Carusi and the builder was Evergreen Construction.  You can see some wedding day photos of their work here.  I call them wedding day photos because the school is never going to look any better.  They actually have some very nice work in their portfolio.  Unfortunately, our school probably won't be one of their best.

All that said, the interior design of the school will likely be very good.  Learning by Design rated that design as an outstanding project for 2011.  

At a minimum, the school design needs some work on the exterior to give it a distinct Roswell feel.

School Walkability - Roughly 50% of kids walked to school in 1969.  As of 2009, that number had dropped to roughly 15%.  Of course, in the same period, the number of kids who are driven to school in private vehicles has jumped from 12% to 44%.  Just one more thing contributing to the obesity epidemic in our country.  Will this school help reverse that trend?  I highly doubt it.  In this day and age, schools are designed to accommodate bus traffic, car traffic and then foot traffic.  

School Site & Size - This is truly what determines the walkability of a school.  Ideally, an elementary school is embedded into the neighborhood that it serves.  Unfortunately, we haven't done a particularly good job in this country planning for future school sites.  Compounding the issue are school site requirements.  In Georgia, site size requirements are as follows:
  • Elementary Schools - 5 acres + 1 acre for every 100 full-time enrolled students
  • Middle Schools - 12 acres + 1 acre for every 100 full-time enrolled students
  • High Schools - 20 acres + 1 acre for every 100 full-time enrolled students
Given that a quarter mile walk is generally the radius in which someone will choose to walk versus jumping in the car, we are significantly limiting the number of students who would likely choose to walk and finding sites that meet these requirements in already built out cities is increasingly challenging (and expensive).  

With these size requirements, you might figure that size is a requirement to delivering a top notch education.  However, that's not necessarily the case.  Take Inman Middle School in the Virginia Highland neighborhood as an example.  It's a solid school with a 9 out of 10 rating on GreatSchools.org but it's situated on only 2.5 acres.  With almost 800 students, that's about 17.5 fewer acres than the state of Georgia would require if a new school were to be built.  

Our new school will be on roughly 14 acres along hwy 9.  The districting has not been determined yet so we can't say where the students would be walking from.  But, we can safely say that kids residing on the west side of hwy 9 will probably not be walking to school.  Those that have to walk along hwy 9 will also probably not be walking to school.  Any students living more than a half-mile walk from the front door of the school will also probably not be walking.  So, this rules out a sizable chunk of the potential students.  No wonder new schools create traffic concerns.  All the students have to ride or be driven and it's almost exclusively due to the site location and site size requirements.

If we want our new school to be a walkable, neighborhood school, we have a lot of work to do.

I'll also be writing a piece on the school in my Community Design Matters column for the Sept edition of The Current.