There are a lot of things that set the new North Atlanta High School building apart from others around Georgia. but chief among them is the cost of building it. In a state where the average cost of a new school building is less than $40 million, the Atlanta high school carries a price tag of nearly $150 million.
It has led some to complain about what they see as a waste of public money – especially since the school went $50 million over budget. What is the point of investing in such palatial digs for a district that is seeing a decline in student numbers?
But for Atlanta education officials this is hardly just a building. It is a signal that the district is ready to move on from the cheating scandal that claimed the heads of 35 high-level employees – former superintendent among them – and that it is also well positioned to compete against charter school alternatives in the city.
"We have a special obligation here," said Howard E. Taylor, the new principal. "The district is digging out of a historic crisis."
He and other educators say that the new school building is an opportunity to show that a large, urban public high school can be a viable alternative to the rising tide of charter schools, voucher systems and private education.
Some of the 1,400 students who will attend the school this year come from the wealthiest families in the region, but others, Mr. Taylor said, are homeless. Nearly half are black. About 27 percent are white and 20 percent are Hispanic. They speak more than 40 languages.
"If there was ever a model for an urban high school, this is it," he said.
According to Kim Severson of The New York Times, Taylor hopes that the new facilities will help the school improve its dismal graduation rate of 61% last year. The building is stuffed to the brim with modern facilities to help staff and teachers reach that goal. From the state of the art technology labs to a rifle range and a massive gymnasium, the school is missing nothing that can help students improve academically.
North Atlanta High has even expanded its educational program, and will now offer Advanced Placement, international studies and business courses.
"Hopefully, the academics will be as good as the building," said Regine Zuber, touring the school with her daughter, Amanda Stevens, 14, this week.
Transforming a 1977 office building that once held about 5,000 workers into a functional and safe high school designed to eventually hold 2,400 was challenging.
Atlanta planners toured two high schools in New York City and studied other large schools, but nothing quite matched the challenges of a concrete edifice on a wooded 56-acre plot of land.