THE BLOG
01/06/2014 01:06 pm ET Updated Feb 24, 2015

Transforming Not Just a School But a Community

Back in 2005, I visited Atlanta's truly astonishing Centennial Place Elementary School. Serving a student body of mostly poor African American students, it was one of the top-performing schools in Georgia, with a science-themed curriculum that incorporated the arts. That is, not only did students learn to play the violin, they studied the physics of music. When I visited the school with then-principal, Dr. Cynthia Kuhlman, I saw students reading, writing, and studying animal classification. I wished my children could have gone there.*

But Centennial Place was not just a great school, it had a larger story of community revitalization to tell.

The surrounding neighborhood had, until a few years before, housed two of the most notorious public housing projects in the country -- Techwood Homes, the first federal housing project in the United States, built during the Roosevelt administration, and Clark Howell Homes. Neglected and decrepit, the projects were famously dangerous, despite being adjacent to the renowned Georgia Tech University.

As part of the HOPE VI federal housing program, the projects were razed and replaced with town-homes and apartments, 40 percent of which were rented and sold at market rates. Of the 60 percent made available at below-market rates, two-thirds of the units were reserved for families qualifying for public housing. At the center of the development was the new Centennial Place Elementary, built to replace the old, extremely low-performing Fowler Elementary, and a YMCA, which served as a community center and provided daycare and after-school care for neighborhood children. It was the first development of its kind to try to replace a low-income federal project with a mixed-income community with a view to helping families gain self-sufficiency. Kuhlman pushed the school to adopt the focus on science because of what she called the "horror story" that not a single graduate of Fowler had ever attended Georgia Tech. The university became a partner in developing the curriculum, and an architecture professor designed an unusual open-classroom design that encouraged teacher collaboration.

But despite the fabulous school and Y and nice-looking town-homes, the neighborhood still had a desolate feel; to give a sense of that, when I checked into the hotel next door to the Y, the clerk told me that no food delivery service was available because no one would drive into that neighborhood at night. As I recall, I made a dinner from the hotel vending machine. (When I'm traveling I consider corn chips to be a vegetable.)

This fall I was lucky enough to be able to return to Atlanta and I seized the opportunity to visit with Dr. Kuhlman again. She retired as principal from Centennial Place some years ago, and although I have kept up with her (in a future column I'll let you know the interesting work she's been up to these days), I hadn't really kept up with Centennial Place Elementary School. It no longer leads the state in academic achievement, but seems to do reasonably well. I should say it's a little hard to tell about this, because Georgia's report card web site hasn't been updated in a long time. But the new principal is highly respected and has kept the school's focus on science and the arts. The students are still mostly African American and mostly come from low-income families, but there are a few middle-class students and even a few white and Asian students. It is, apparently, beginning to attract the university community to send its children to the school -- which was unthinkable years ago.

In any case, as part of our visit Dr. Kuhlman drove me past her beloved former school. I was knocked out by the development that now surrounds it. Condos, restaurants, stores, hotels, playgrounds. It is a vibrant urban neighborhood that is attracting young families and others to live, work, and stay. I saw people walking, playing, and eating. What a transformation.

So is this just a story of gentrification? Middle-class and upper-class people elbowing poor people out of newly recognized prime real estate and turning the local school into an enclave of privilege?

I asked Egbert Perry. He is chairman and chief executive officer of The Integral Group, one of the original HOPE VI developers, along with McCormack Baron and Associates, in partnership with the Atlanta Housing Authority and others (such as Coca-Cola, the Georgia Aquarium, and the Blank Foundation).

"You know that's not true," he said. To begin with, 60 percent of the Centennial Place townhomes are still reserved for lower-income families with 40 percent reserved for families qualifying for public housing. That will remain. In addition, Centennial Place Elementary School still serves five nearby homeless shelters.

Integral, Perry said, is not just a real estate development company but a "community development" company, and its vision is to reproduce the kind of urban communities where all kinds of people lived and worked together.

"Most people over the age of 40 remember those kinds of communities," Perry said. "Then we had the flight to the suburbs and as the suburbs were made, people figured out market segmentation. Housing started to be developed single use," with developments for low-income, middle-income, and upper-income residents. "We stratified into different slices. And now we're trying to bring back all of those slices."

Perry said he is committed to what are now called "mixed-income" neighborhoods and to making Centennial Place Elementary School once again the best school in the state.

Over time, he said, the school has been hampered by the fact that the district has not given it the same kind of autonomy that it had back in the days of Kuhlman ("She is a force of nature," Perry said of Kuhlman).

Partly for that reason, it applied to become a charter school. The school district recently approved the application, and it now awaits approval from the state school board. If approved, Perry will serve as the chairman of an eleven-person board that will include two members of the Atlanta Public Schools.

"This is being done as a part of the system instead of apart from the system," Perry said.

"Revitalizations like this take decades, and there are ups and downs along the way," he said. "All is not great, but the many partners, working together, are continuing their transformation of this entire community."

I'm hoping to go back and spend more time understanding what is happening at Centennial Place, the school, and the neighborhood.

But the trajectory of improvement over 10 years in Atlanta seems so hopeful and important to me that I thought I'd let you know, even before I have figured out the entire story. To me it seemed an example of the kind of urban development -- built at least in part because of a successful high-poverty school -- that could revitalize our cities as economically and racially integrated centers for all kinds of people, from just-starting-out young people and young families right on through to families with school children and empty nesters.

There's a lot more to write about my visit to Atlanta, and I'll be doing that in upcoming columns. In the meantime, I'd welcome comments and correspondence from anyone who is familiar with Centennial Place -- either the school or the neighborhood. Am I right to see hope and success there?

*To read about what I saw at Centennial Place in 2005, see It's Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2007).