By Amy Wenk

Garden Hills Elementary School is in a stately brick building nestled among residences on Sheridan Drive in Buckhead.

Built in 1938 by renowned Atlanta architect Philip Shutze, the public institution is near the forthcoming Streets of Buckhead and caters to such affluent neighborhoods as Garden Hills, Peachtree Park and Pine Hills.

But the school has struggled to establish an upscale reputation within the community. Many families have opted to send their children to such nearby private schools as Christ the King School and the Atlanta International School.

“For a number of years, this school has not been a socially acceptable school for the surrounding neighborhoods,” said Dora Burke, a resident of Peachtree Park.

In recent years, however, new leadership and innovative programs have made the school “a desirable and competitive choice” compared with private schools, she said.

“With the economy the way it is today, it is a welcome change to have such a great, no-cost asset in our neighborhood,” said Burke, the mother of a rising kindergartner.

Garden Hills parents and faculty are working to change the public’s opinion of the school and encourage more neighborhood children to attend.

“A lot of it is just perception,” said Principal Amy Wilson, who took over in 2007 after two years as assistant principal. “People haven’t been inside the school to see all the great things going on.”

Diverse students

The children at Garden Hills ( represent about 12 nationalities, and most are Hispanic, Wilson said.

“The classrooms have a healthy balance of ethnicity,” said Peachtree Park resident Liz Stewart, the mother of rising kindergartner Madeline. “I think that may be a misperception from the community.”

Wilson views the mix of cultures as a valuable learning environment.

“It is a good picture of what the real world looks like,” she said. “The kids don’t see the differences. It’s a very safe time to expose children to diversity.”

Since more than a third of the children are from low-income families, Garden Hills receives Title I federal funds.

Wilson said the federal money allows for enrichment activities otherwise not available at most schools, public or private. For instance, the students have made field trips to see King Tut at the Atlanta Civic Center, pan for gold in Dahlonega and enjoy the Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker.”

“The kids go all over the city,” Wilson said. “Garden Hills has the best of both worlds … wonderful parent support and added resources through Title I.”

With 570 students, Garden Hills also offers small class size. The average second-grade class has 15 children, while fifth grade generally has 23.

Other Buckhead public schools, including Sarah Smith and Morris Brandon elementary schools, have more than 800 students each.

International curriculum

Garden Hills Elementary became the state’s first public primary school to earn the International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Program authorization in 2006.

“This is considered a step above AP (Advanced Placement) level,” Stewart said. “You are getting a similar education as across the street” at the Atlanta International School, an IB private school.

The program institutes inquiry-based learning that meets international standards. Students of an IB school can easily transfer to institutions throughout the world because concepts such as thinking skills, self-management, research methods and communication are emphasized.

“It’s all-encompassing,” said Peachtree Park resident Shannon Helmi, adding that her second-grade daughter, Emmy, “can take a vision one step further.”

As part of the IB program, students receive 30 minutes of language instruction each day. Around 95 percent of teachers are bilingual, so they are able to reinforce concepts in English and Spanish.

“The goal is for all kids to read and write in both languages,” Wilson said.

The curriculum also aims for children to develop an international perspective by becoming aware of and sensitive to different cultural views. One way teachers achieve that goal is to recognize students each day for fulfilling character traits such as empathy and cooperation. In addition, children can become IB Citizen of the Month.

Enrichment programs

Garden Hills has seen the launch of several enrichment programs to help children “learn through different vehicles,” Wilson said.

Garden Hills is the pilot school for the Woodruff Arts Center’s Artist in Residence program. Since January, 16 artists have visited classrooms once a week to impart their knowledge in such media as music and visual arts.

Students “love it,” Wilson said. “It’s really incredible.”

Other new programs include Banking on Our Future, in which bankers teach fourth- and fifth-graders the power of money and finances, and High Touch High Tech, a hands-on science and nature program for all grades.

“There is constantly something going on,” Wilson said.

Getting the word out

In the hope of improving the reputation of Garden Hills, parents and faculty are reaching out to the community.

Wilson has established a partnership with the Buckhead Business Association, and she is visiting preschools at places such as Peachtree Presbyterian Church and Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church to connect with prospective parents.

“It’s been awhile since someone from Garden Hills reached out,” Wilson said. “It’s a very scary time when deciding where to send your kids.”

The principal is looking to strengthen ties with Realtors and in March will hold a Realtor Day to invite companies like Keller Williams to tour the school. The goal is for real estate agents to include Garden Hills along with nearby private schools when listing the assets of the neighborhood for prospective home buyers.

“We want to encourage them to see how fabulous this school is and to encourage kids to come,” said Stewart, who is part of a group of prospective parents determined to set the school’s record straight.

By organizing play dates and marketing efforts, families are spreading the word that Garden Hills is a competitive school with quality educators.

“I think the environment is so warm and inviting for a lot of different types of children,” said Garden Hills neighborhood resident Julie Riefl, the mother of third-grader Murphy and first-grader Larkin. “I have seen some of the shyest kids come in and blossom.

“Every teacher knows your child’s name. They love for your child to excel and celebrate that spirit each and every day. We have yet to have a day where (our children) are not truly excited to go to school.”