Virginia Highland Elementary School students on their first day of class. (Courtesy Atlanta Public Schools)

On Aug. 1, Virginia-Highland Elementary (VHE) welcomed about 580 Atlanta Public School students from Ansley Park, Midtown, Morningside, Sherwood Forest, and parts of Virginia-Highland.

Before the school opened, there was plenty of tension in the community about moving students to a new school, but the opening day went off without a hitch. 

“It went smoothly – knock on wood,” said VHE Principal Terry Harness. “Our teachers are great and happy. Our kids know exactly what’s going on and where they need to be. It feels like a building that we have already been in for a while… I feel like it’s home.” 

“The first day, Mr. Harness greeted the kids with “Hootie the Owl” mascot, music, and lots of balloons,” said Melissa Clark, interim VHE PTO co-president.

Clark’s daughter had just watched a video of her teacher Mr. Freeman reading “The Night Before First Grade.” On the first day, he served “jitter juice” – Sprite, juice, and sprinkles – to help students overcome their nerves.

To alleviate overcrowding, 450 VHE students came from the former SPARK zone and 80 from Morningside, per Harness. VHE also added a general and a special needs Pre-K class. “It’s like we’ve all been one big happy family the entire time,” Harness said. 

Kindergarten student Kate Valduga with mascot Hootie the Owl. (Photo by Ryan Valduga)

Nestled on the corner of Virginia Avenue and Park Drive, VHE is both diverse, with about 40 percent students of color, and walkable.

“Sixty percent of our school population lives within the walk zone,” Harness said, noting that 200+ children walked or biked the first week. Five buses are dedicated for those outside the 1-mile walk zone or west of Monroe Drive.  

The campus has come full circle. Built in 1924 as an elementary school, it’s been renovated and reimagined, serving as a middle school from 1978 – 2021, housing Morningside students during their school’s renovation and now VHE. 

“APS has done a great job renovating and performing some upgrades,” Harness added. “It feels elementary, but we also have the amenities of a middle school: a large gym with bleachers and an auditorium for our kids and community.” 

The extra space makes room for innovative teaching.  There is a phonics lab led by Humanities Instructional Coach Corrie Madlem. In this dedicated space, students practice tracing letters in sand trays, looking in hand-held mirrors as they form words, and more, per Leah Matthews, VHE interim co-president.

 We are also going to do a math gym, like skip counting by 2 or 5,” Harness said. 

First grade student Quinn Clark hugs Principal Terry Harness (Photo by Melissa Clark)

There’s also a maker’s space that teachers can use stocked with paints, marbles, flashlights, and more. “It’s like a combo between science and art,” said Matthews.

Thanks to a Captain Planet grant, there will soon be an outdoor garden classroom.

“Everything we’ve tried to establish right out of the gate is uniquely us – our school colors, logo, and mascot,” Harness said. “I believe we’ve accomplished that with the support of an incredible PTO, a wonderful group of community members and parents.”  

Matthews said the PTO raised more than $300,000 in seed funds prior to the school opening for the 2023-24 academic year.

“The vast majority of those funds paid for curriculum, teacher classroom start-up funds, and small facelifts to make the building feel like an elementary school,” Clark said. 

The funds also allowed VHE to expand its library by adding nearly 4,500 titles when it was discovered there wasn’t enough money in the APS budget. 

In November 2022, Harness was named VHE principal and started planning for this transition with APS and the community. His former assistant principal, Dr. Jennifer Toney, was promoted to SPARK’s principal. 

SPARK which had about 850 students last year, now has about 415 with more room to grow and its own renewed excitement, per Harness. 

“Something born out of so much uncertainty and no desire to split up now seems like everyone is really happy and we have two great communities that support each other,” Matthews said.

“We’ll come back together at David T. Howard Middle School,” Clark added. 

The VHE succulent wall in the main hallway of the school. (Photo by Melissa Clark)

Clare S. Richie is a freelance writer and public policy specialist based in Atlanta.