In the carpentry classroom at Atlanta College and Career Academy, drills and lumber await students.

In the patient care lab, medical dummies lie in hospital beds. In a kitchen, plastic-wrapped mixers stand ready for culinary classes.

When Atlanta Public Schools finished an $11 million renovation of the former Parks Middle School last summer, the revamped campus with its specialty classrooms became the eagerly anticipated centerpiece of the district’s push to prepare students for jobs and higher education.

But the pandemic delayed the building’s opening for months. On Tuesday, when APS resumes in-person classes at middle and high schools, some students will start learning in the spaces designed to give them real-world experience in construction, cooking, dentistry, criminal investigations and other fields.

“It is beautiful,” said carpentry instructor Gerald Lake, of the large lab where he will show students how to hang drywall, run a drill press, and do plumbing, masonry and woodworking.

Like other academy instructors, he’s been teaching online this school year.

“Our kids are resilient. They adapt. They catch on quick. But the problem is that our stuff is 90% hands-on,” he said.

Just over a third of the academy’s 243 students opted to come into the building, with the rest remaining in virtual classes. Principal Tasharah Wilson said teachers created safety plans with social distancing in mind. No lab will have more than 10 students. Tools will be assigned so students aren’t sharing, she said.

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Wilson, the former principal of Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta and Cross Keys High School in DeKalb County, spent the 2019-2020 school year planning for the academy. She hired staff, recruited students and built partnerships with business leaders.

The school’s first-year enrollment was projected to be higher, but a couple hundred students opted not to enroll during the pandemic. The academy also delayed its aviation maintenance program until the industry bounces back. It’s now slated to start in 2022.

Wilson’s goal is to enroll 700 students next school year. Incoming sophomores, juniors and seniors have until March 5 to apply.

Students remain enrolled in their home high school, where they take their core academic classes, and then attend academy classes in the mornings or afternoons.

“We want to be the best in the state,” Wilson said.

Amelia Green, a senior at Grady High School, plans to study hospitality at Cornell University. She enrolled in the academy’s culinary arts program to further her cooking skills. Last week , she got a sneak peak of the school’s kitchen. She sautéd onions for a butternut squash soup while her instructor Maurietta Amos watched.

”It’s so nice in here — a professional kitchen. There’s nothing like it for me, especially since I want to be a chef,” Green said.

While learning online, she and her classmates received kits with recipe ingredients, seasonings, measuring cups and safety knives. Amos said the online format allowed her to teach the science and nutrition behind cooking. Students in the kitchen will get to use the equipment.

The kitchen is stocked. There’s a sheeter for flattening dough and a salamander broiler to get the perfect cheesy crouton crust on French onion soup.

“They’ve got everything that they could possibly want,” Amos said.

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Automotive instructor Andrea Strommen already brought in her own 1984 Chevy Camaro and a Dodge Charger in preparation for when six of her students start learning in-person. Three other used vehicles will soon be delivered so they can get work on different kinds of engines and frames.

Strommen plans to set up stations so students can spread out while they practice balancing and mounting tires, wiring and other skills. She’ll also continue to teach students virtually by using a video camera to show them what she’s doing in the shop.

“They are going to come here and leave with something, whether it’s a hobby or career or inspiration for going to college,” she said.

Atlanta College and Career Academy

Location: Former Parks Middle School building, 1090 Windsor Street S.W.

Current enrollment: 243 students

Enrollment capacity: about 700 students

Renovation cost: $11 million

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