By C. Julia Nelson

Overcrowding at three Buckhead elementary schools in the Atlanta Public School (APS) system may uproot the system’s behavioral and autism program for the third time in a decade.

As the Atlanta Board of Education considers a plan to redistrict Morris Brandon, Sarah Smith and Warren T. Jackson Elementary Schools and create primary centers for their kindergarten and first-grade students to alleviate over enrollment, the North Metro program may be relocated to accommodate one of the new centers.

According to the latest recommendation, dated Feb. 15, North Metro, which currently operates out of the Margaret Mitchell School, 2845 Margaret Mitchell Dr., would transition to the Peterson Elementary School, located 14 miles away at 1757 Mary Dell Dr. as early as the 2008-09 academic year. This move would allow for renovations at the Margaret Mitchell site to prepare a primary center for Brandon Elementary students. Classes there would begin in the 2009-10 academic year, which according to the revised plan, “will allow the district time to perform the necessary renovations and additions to the Mitchell facility.”

North Metro director Susan McKenzie said that while the Peterson facility is physically large enough to house the North Metro program, it’s the transitioning of students that concerns her.

“We want to make a smooth transition for all the students we’re currently serving and will serve in the new building,” she said. “Some of our students have difficulty with transition.”

A service of the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, North Metro works in multiple school districts with K-12 students who have severe emotional, behavioral disorders and/or autism.

Services offered at North Metro include therapeutic support, psychological and limited psychiatric services, connecting families to and coordinating support with outside agencies, small class sizes of six to eight students and having at least one teacher and one para-professional in every classroom.

“The children we serve need a very high level of support in order to be successful,” McKenzie said.

On average, North Metro works with about 50 to 60 APS students at the Mitchell site on a daily basis and serves about 100 APS students annually.

APS media relations specialist Joe Manguno said the district recognizes the value of North Metro as an asset to the district.

“We certainly need a facility to serve these children who cannot be served in a normal classroom setting,” Manguno said. “(North Metro) is an invaluable asset to the (APS) school system.”

In order to offer a continuum of special needs services to its students, APS originally provided North Metro with a physical location on Huff Road back in the early 1970s. Later on, North Metro was relocated to the Chattahoochie Elementary school site before eventually moving to the Tuxedo Elementary site about nine years ago.

Five years after transitioning to Tuxedo, APS moved the program to its current location to make way for the primary center that currently serves the Jackson students.

Because they know from recent years that making this change will be trying for the students, North Metro teachers are already preparing students and notifying parents in case the board approves the current redistricting recommendation. Additionally, McKenzie has been in talks with APS facilities staff to make sure the North Metro students’ needs are met at the Peterson site, which is currently vacant.

“We’re working with APS facility staff to get the Peterson site ready,” she said. “We have been assured the building will be ready for us and appropriate for the students by the time school starts in August.”

She said the building will need a review of all mechanical systems and extensive cleaning before a move is feasible. APS will also have to reconsider the transportation requirements for current and future students; McKenzie said a plan is in the works to resolve any transportation issues.

“Ideally,” McKenzie said, “we’d like to start moving in prior to pre-planning to have materials and supplies in the classrooms before (the teachers) come in for pre-planning week (in late July).”

Manguno said in a perfect world, North Metro would be better off never moving, but because APS provides a location for the program at no cost and has a dire need for space in that neighborhood, relocation may be unavoidable.

“The redistricting plan is being taken under consideration with the full knowledge that it is not the best of all worlds,” he said. “It’ll be an inconvenience on people. Given what the school system is faced with, (the board is) having to make some hard decisions and trying to make the best one possible with as much input from the community as possible.”

After retaining community input, the revised plan reflects three specific differences from the previous proposal. First, the revised version clarifies that students living within the Ridgewood Heights area would remain at Jackson.

Secondly, the attendance zone for Brandon has changed to include the area bordered by Arden Road, West Paces Ferry and Northside Drive within its district. Lastly, grandfathering has been extended to include the siblings of grandfathered children at all three schools.

All other aspects of the proposal have remained the same. (A full version of the revised redistricting recommendation may be downloaded at

“The school system proposed this is what our solution is,” Manguno said. “The board will take it under consideration until the voting meeting.”

Regardless of where the APS branch of the North Metro program operates, McKenzie is committed to maintaining a high standard of education and care for the students she oversees.

“I want to provide the absolute best services to these youngsters that you would find anywhere in the country,” McKenzie said. “I want it to be state-of-the-art, research-based; I want a highly trained staff, the best collaboration and partnership with parents. I never want to be satisfied because there’s always room for improvement.”

In the mean time, North Metro, along with Brandon, Jackson and Smith Elementary schools, will wait on the sidelines for the Atlanta Board of Education to decide their fate in March.

The revised proposal for redistricting will be considered at the board’s committee of the whole session on Monday, March 3 and voted upon at its regular meeting on Monday, March 10.