Idea of moving DeKalb magnet program spurs resistance, debate

Chamblee High School was on the verge of closing in the early 1990s because of low enrollment when a magnet program for high achievers brought hundreds of students there from across the county.

Chamblee is now in danger of overcrowding, thanks to a north county population boom. Some parents and DeKalb County School District officials say moving the program elsewhere would make space available in the attendance district for students in what is still DeKalb’s fastest growing area.

“The seats are at a premium because it’s in the hot zone,” said Allyson Gevertz, a parent and co-chairman of Parent Councils United, which advocates for quality education across the district.

But other parents say relocating the magnet programs would end that popular program because many of its students would not move to a school far away, and it would not draw enough students to its new location.

“You disseminate this program and it will send students back to their neighborhood schools,” said Monica Littlefield, who has a child in the magnet program. “You don’t know what the impact is. You’re assuming it’s going to alleviate a problem you have no control over.”

The debate came up during the district’s development of a list of projects to deal with growth. The options ranges from adding a school cluster, to renovating schools to add space and building new schools. The improvements will be paid with the 2017-2022 education sales tax, known as the E-SPLOST.

Public hearings have allowed the community a part in the decision-making. Moving the magnet program was an idea that surfaced during the hearings, said Dan Drake, the district’s planning director. A committee of parents and community members suggested moving the program to Southwest DeKalb High School.

If nothing is done, schools from Dunwoody to Tucker along the I-285 corridor could see overcrowding by nearly 6,000 students by 2022, officials said.

Residents are weighing in through online surveys. Meetings and a survey in October will whittle down the list of projects. The school board will get the list in November, with a vote expected at its Dec. 5 meeting.

Drake said more than half the magnet program’s students currently live out of the area. Officials are confident enough students would move with the program.

“Twenty percent of our (102,000) students don’t attend a home school and exercise some form of school choice,” he said, pointing to the districtwide trend.

Twenty-five years ago, most of DeKalb County’s population was in the south. The north was less developed.

The Chamblee magnet program was designed, the district website says, “to challenge students who will benefit from a fast-paced, stimulating environment.” As it thrived — student test scores are among the best in the district — so, too, did the north part of the county. Residential subdivisions popped up, and retail establishments followed.

Ernest Brown, whose children graduated from DeKalb County schools, is still active on various committees offering input. He’s dealt with magnet programs moving within the district, as his children were in them and moved with the programs.

Many of the parents pooled resources to make it work, through sharing supplies and materials, and even carpooling. “We didn’t think anything of it. We just did it,” he said. “We wanted to keep them in the greater community. Not only did it benefit our kids, but other kids by how active (many parents) were. I’d say 80 to 90 percent of the students moved with the programs.

“There may have been a handful who may have had personal challenges and decided not to stay on.”

One of Gevertz’s children attends an arts magnet outside her neighborhood school area. But the curriculum makes the drive worth it, she said.

“People will make it work,” she said. “I think (Superintendent Steve Green) is always inclined to give kids more opportunities for success than not. If they need to move the magnet to put people in seats … I totally understand the reasoning.”

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