DeKalb schools target crowding, trailers in Cross Keys district

September 11, Doraville, GA: At Cary Reynolds Elementary School, 26 portable classrooms have been setup to accommodate the overflow of students. BRANT SANDERLIN /BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

September 11, Doraville, GA: At Cary Reynolds Elementary School, 26 portable classrooms have been setup to accommodate the overflow of students. BRANT SANDERLIN /BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

A plan presented to the DeKalb County Board of Education should alleviate overcrowding that has forced hundreds of students at six schools in the Cross Keys Cluster along Buford Highway into trailer classrooms.

According to the plan, presented Monday afternoon, students will be immediately shuffled to schools throughout the district and several schools will be moved into other buildings to make way for Cross Keys students. The plan also includes construction of a new high school, middle school and two elementary schools.

Addressing the overcrowding is long overdue, Superintendent Steve Green said.

“It’s their turn,” Green said about the Cross Keys Cluster. “The Cross Keys Cluster is getting the attention it needs. It’s not about how we got here. It’s about admitting we’re here and fixing it.”

The numbers tell the story of the Cross Keys Cluster, six schools populated mostly with minority students whose primary language is anything but English. It consists of Woodward, Montclair, Dresden and Cary Reynolds elementary schools, Sequoyah Middle and Cross Keys High. The schools have a capacity for 5,700 students, but more than 7,500 are enrolled.

Officials said 81 “portables” — trailer classrooms — are used at the four elementary schools, with another 32 at the middle and high school. There are an average of 17 students in each trailer.

DeKalb County has become the unofficial resettlement district in Georgia for immigrants and international refugees, mostly due to the services available for them throughout the county. Because of that, student population in the area is expected to increase about 550 students per year. That would add another 33 portables to the schools each year based on current figures.

Green said he became aware of the problem while visiting the district during his transition into the job. He was shown one of the six schools in the cluster, where more than two dozen portables held students.

“What I saw was more serious than what was conveyed to me,” Green said. “It was devastating. Broke my heart. That has stayed with me for quite some time. I saw a need to accelerate that plan dramatically.

“Temporary classrooms are supposed to be temporary.”

Former Superintendent Michael Thurmond said he tried to convey to Green when the two had a transition meeting that the Cross Keys situation would need his attention almost immediately. While test scores and grades don’t yet indicate that the students there are harmed by the overcrowding, they could be soon, Thurmond said. “To wait … exacerbates the challenges they face,” he said.

If there’s an announcement for all the school to hear, it takes three periods to to make sure all the students at Woodward Elementary School hear it, principal Melanie Pearch said recently.

Her school has students in 12 temporary classrooms, including five on a hill near the school and seven in another corner, housing the entire second grade. The trailers have taken up half the parking lot and half the playground. Evacuation drills are more thoroughly thought out. She worries when the bell rings for the end of the day: Is there enough staff to get all the students to their parents or on their buses to get home?

“You just have to be so proactive in thinking about so many things,” she said.

At Dresden Elementary School, the 27 temporary classrooms also take up most of the playground and a lot of parking space. Principal Dominique Terrell said the district has worked out a leasing agreement with a nearby church for spaces during the day. She said she also deals with the same logistical and planning problems as Pearch.

They found space, albeit tight, for a play area on the grounds.

Oddly enough, Pearch said, the children make dealing with the overcrowding a better situation.

“It’s something new for the kids,” Pearch said. “They don’t dread it as you would think. It’s something exciting for them.”