Opinion: An Atlanta school died today, victim of gentrification and school choice

Volunteer tutor Patti Ghezzi with Whitefoord Elementary School students in 2000 at Camp Woodmont in North Georgia. Volunteers raised money in memory of Dr. Betty Blasingame to send children to camp.

Patti Ghezzi, a former education journalist, now works in university communications. (Ghezzi covered education for the AJC from 1997 to 2006.)

Ghezzi volunteered for many years at Atlanta’s Whitefoord Elementary School, which closed its doors today, part of the Atlanta Public Schools consolidation plan. In this piece, she talks about the school she knew and loved and the inspiring principal who led it.

By Patti Ghezzi

Whitefoord Elementary, a neighborhood school in Atlanta’s Edgewood community, closed Thursday, shut down because of declining enrollment brought on by gentrification and charter schools.

It was 93 years old.

When former teachers gathered recently to share memories of the school, many recalled Dr. Betty Blasingame, the former principal whose education philosophy defined the concept of a neighborhood school. “Sad to see such an excellent school close,” Roselyn Lewis, the school’s longtime music teacher, who used opera and drumming to engage her students, wrote on Facebook. “You left an excellent legacy, Dr. Betty Blasingame.”

From 1993 to 2002, I was a volunteer at Whitefoords’s Discovery Program, a tutoring program that met every other Saturday morning. Dr. Blasingame was at the helm when I got there and led Whitefoord with fierce love and absolute authority until her death in 1999 of liver cancer.

Back then, there were no buses at Whitefoord. Every student lived within walking distance. On Saturday mornings, the school bustled with energy and volunteers. In addition to the Discovery Program, which was sponsored by Hands on Atlanta, there were scout troops and a camera club. The school had a successful partnership with the Marriott. In 1994, a full-service health clinic opened inside the school.

Dr. Blasingame’s leadership style was her-way-or-the-highway, but she gave teachers latitude to be creative in educating students, many of whom lived in abject poverty.

She made it clear to volunteers that we were not allowed to feel sorry for the students, buy them gifts, or let them down in our commitment to show up every other week. She reminded us often that she was reluctant to allow us into her school, for fear we would lose interest or fail to meet her high standards.

But Dr. Blasingame opened her doors because she knew her students lacked exposure, which she believed was the biggest barrier they faced in escaping poverty. Their worlds were limited to Edgewood, boxed in by Memorial Drive, DeKalb Avenue, Hosea L. Williams Drive and I-20. We brought our exposure to the outside world with us, and we took the kids on field trips to Zoo Atlanta and Fernbank Museum.

She appointed two outstanding teachers to supervise us, and most Saturdays she was there as well, always professionally dressed. She had that steely look that allowed her to discipline without words, but she also loved to talk and talk and talk.

Dr. Blasingame instilled in me everything I believe about public education. Children have needs, and if those needs aren’t met at home, the school must step in. It’s a fool’s errand to teach in a vacuum, blind to children’s hunger, neglect, isolation, and other obstacles.

Her love for Whitefoord was intense, as was her disappointment when students fell short of her expectations. One morning a recent graduate came to the school to show off her newborn. Dr. Blasingame stopped the girl at the front steps. She did not allow former students to give the impression teen pregnancy was cool. “Don’t bring that baby here,” she said. “Turn right around and go home.”

Less than a month into my stint co-leading first grade, she came into the classroom and chewed me out for not preparing enough activities. “It’s chaos in here, and you have as many adults as you have kids,” she said. “Patti, these children need something to do.”

From then on, I prepared enough art projects, science activities and worksheet packets to keep kids busy for days.

I was rewarded for doing things Dr. Blasingame’s way. I got invited to a volunteer appreciation event, and I was the commencement speaker at kindergarten graduation. She sent a letter detailing my attributes, cc’ed to Hands on Atlanta.

Volunteers marveled at the artwork and writing displayed on the walls, especially poetry that detailed the students’ experiences growing up poor. One year, Dr. Blasingame’s theme was “Peace Begins with Me,” and students wrote about the violence in their lives. Volunteers shed tears over essays titled, “When I Become a Parent” and “If I Won the Lottery.”

Whitefoord’s test scores were higher than expected for a school serving low-income children, especially in the lower grades, when teachers could capture their students’ love of learning before they fell under the influence of peers who regarded education as uncool.

At Dr. Blasingame’s packed funeral, the Atlanta school board chairman summed up her legacy: “Whitefoord is a school that works.”

After her death, the accountability movement swept in full force. I watched the new principal and teachers adapt to ever-changing demands and the increasing weight of standardized test scores, a direction Dr. Blasingame would have decried as misguided. As the accountability movement squeezed Dr. Blasingame’s holistic philosophy, changes in Edgewood impacted Whitefoord.

Several of the falling-down homes my students lived in were renovated and sold, and loft condos sprang up next to the boarded-up apartment building where my favorite students, Alan and Marcus, once lived. Charter schools diverted children away from Whitefoord.

Dr. Blasingame believed schools were inextricably bound to their communities, feeding off each other’s success and failure. But Edgewood changed until it could no longer support a neighborhood school, an all too familiar scenario in urban neighborhoods. I am filled with despair when I see the negative impact of gentrification and school choice, having participated in both. I once owned a house in gentrified East Lake, and my daughter attends a charter school.

I’m sadder still to witness the public education pendulum having swung so far away from Dr. Blasingame’s belief that kids need more from their schools than math and reading instruction. She gave students a broad education that included field trips, music, art and extracurricular activities, essentials now found in charter schools and in neighborhood schools in affluent areas but not in low-income neighborhood schools.

Every child deserves such an education, as well as a principal who gives them the opportunity to be part of their community without being limited by it.

 

 

Reader Comments 0

75 comments
Chuck_UGA
Chuck_UGA

I agree, ALL children should benefit from a broad education that includes field trips, music, art and extracurricular activities.  Why can't this be addressed by the various foundations around Atlanta?  Don't turn over any money to anyone associated with the schools, but find a group to manage the money and appropriations for these children's learning.

No doubt I will get ripped by the left wing mobs for suggesting this as they would rather receive the grant money so they can pocket it.  Corruption is 100% rampant with the Left.


Should I ever become wealthy, I will set this up. 

JR47
JR47

I work for APS and live in Kirkwood. I know the sentiments and feelings around closing schools. I myself was affected in the early 2000 I taught at a school that closed. But this is simply economics. I cannot support having two schools (toomer and whiteford) so close together at 30% capacity. It is irresponsible to waste our tax money keeping small schools open. We have to be responsible with our money and merging schools that are both way under capacity within a few miles of each other is wrong. We need to be sensible and focused with our tax dollars. This was the right thing to do. As for gentrification, you make this a dirty word. Why are you against the improvement of a neighborhood? Why do you seem to have a negative opinion of me for buying a house in a neighborhood? Shouldn't I be allowed to buy and live where I choose? I thought I had a choice to live wherever I wanted? I cannot understand the idea of gentrification as bad. It seems crazy to complain when a neighborhood is improved. 

Alt AJC
Alt AJC

Patti, do those little girls a big favor: explain to them the folly of having children without a husband. So that their own kids won't be among the 3 out of 4 black children growing up without a father in the home.

Set aside your liberal politics and just do it.

Kevin Kitchen
Kevin Kitchen

There is no such thing as an "integrated " neighbourhood. There are only CHANGING neighbourhoods. They are changing from all whites to all blacks as in the case of suburbs like Powder Springs and Douglasville or they are changing from all black to all white as is the case in much of Atlanta. The white man has no desire to enter into a long term living arrangement with the black man. He never has and he never will. When the black man moves in, the white man will smile and say hello to the black man as he hammers the For Sale sign into the ground. America was born into segregation and will die into segregation. That's just the way America is.

Kevin Kitchen
Kevin Kitchen

Interesting. I once visited that school as part of my work and I was impressed with it. It had no graffiti, was clean and the kids there were quiet and orderly. Not what I expected to find in a public school in that neighbourhood. I sort of figured that the school was being ran by a no non sense leader.

Suzanne Dunn
Suzanne Dunn

In Atlanta, GA, the beat goes on! This is what can be expected with the leadership in place in Washington!

TheJohnstons
TheJohnstons

This beat has been going on in APS for decades, regardless of who is President. The steep slide began with Beverly Hall, who became Superintendent when Bill Clinton was President.

Chris Hare
Chris Hare

Joe!!!! This isn't the kind of article you normally troll on. Slow day for politics?

E.L. James
E.L. James

Gentrification is RACISM personified! You move into neighborhoods you don't like because you can't afford to live in Buckhead. Then you decide you don't like your existing neighbors or the schools in those areas. You raise the taxes and kick them to curb. Rename the neighborhood some cliche hipster name with bars and brunch spots. This is exactly how AMERICA came to. Columbus gets to America, declares it for himself, even with the Native Americans here already. Kills the Native Americans, pushes them west or try to assimilate them. Now America celebrates this guy every October knowing the truth. The difference is that we know conservatives don't want us in these neighborhoods, but these liberals lie to themselves in thinking they are better. You're one in the same. The difference being the conservative will straight up tell you, while the liberal will move into your neighborhoods and gentrify them. \U0001f610 APS thinks they closing schools will do the trick, but it won't! Failing these students at every turn and knowing their parents don't know enough to stop you is whats happening.

Kevin Kitchen
Kevin Kitchen

There is no such thing as an "integrated " neighbourhood. There are only CHANGING neighbourhoods. They are changing from all whites to all blacks as in the case of suburbs like Powder Springs and Douglasville or they are changing from all black to all white as is the case in much of Atlanta. The white man has no desire to enter into a long term living arrangement with the black man. He never has and he never will. When the black man moves in, the white man will smile and say hello to the black man as he hammers the For Sale sign into the ground. America was born into segregation and will die into segregation. That's just the way America is.

Chris Hare
Chris Hare

Name one Atlanta neighbourhood that has been renamed by gentrification. What's that? You cant? Also didn't know I could raise my own property taxes. Personally I'd like to lower mine

Athena Zabnicki
Athena Zabnicki

Oh no . People cleaned up an area they moved into! Quick, scream racism

E.L. James
E.L. James

it has nothing to do with agreeing with anything. It's facts! If you're mad is because a hot dog will holler. Chris, the Bankhead area is being called West Midtown. All of that section is considered West Midtown or Beltline West. I just named the current one, so have several seats. The value of the property goes up as ppl move in, upgrade homes or demolish them and rebuild them. Enough homes do that and the property value goes up and so does the taxes. \U0001f612

Astropig
Astropig

" The value of the property goes up as ppl move in, upgrade homes or demolish them and rebuild them. Enough homes do that and the property value goes up and so does the taxes"


Gotta pay your fair share there,my brother.

Athena Zabnicki
Athena Zabnicki

Never seen someone so upset over improved neighborhoods \U0001f644

E.L. James
E.L. James

Athena, the lies you tell yourself. Displaced black/brown families so white ppl can have peace of mind is what it is. It's not like you're coming in and helping the ppl already there. Just like when AMERICA shows up in another country to "help". Smh

John Guzzardo
John Guzzardo

Would you rather just have segregated neighborhoods? I live in well mixed neighborhood in South Cobb and it's nice. It's older, it's working class, but we all get along and I rather like it.

E.L. James
E.L. James

John, if the area could be well mixed that would be fine. Except that's not the case. It's usually them kicking all the POC out. Not sending their children to the neighborhood school and then the school closing due to low attendance.

John Guzzardo
John Guzzardo

^^^and here is why our nation is in the mess it's in. The America of 1959, like George Wallace, is dead. If you want that America the I suggest you go to Alaska.

John Guzzardo
John Guzzardo

And I'm done here. It's clear some folks can't move past their own prejudice. Have fun living in 1959, I much prefer 2017 and beyond.

Roland Brian
Roland Brian

Roberta Cromlish basically, yes. That's what it is like to be EL James. Everything is racist.

TheJohnstons
TheJohnstons

Exactly how do the new neighbors raise the property taxes?

TheJohnstons
TheJohnstons

That's because Bankhead is known to be a combat zone.

TheJohnstons
TheJohnstons

So you want somebody else to clean up the neighborhood but not move in? In other words, someone else cleans up your mess and you stay. The mess was created by the neighbors.

E.L. James
E.L. James

Kevin just proved my point. Half of y'all are real about it and the other half in denial.

Tiffany Turner
Tiffany Turner

I agree with a lot of what the 0P said, but I don't think it's necessarily a black-and-white issue only. This to me is entirely a socioeconomic issue. I know plenty of black and brown people who are also re-gentrifying. I wish that we could improve neighborhoods without displacing the original inhabitants.

Rhett Ephgrave
Rhett Ephgrave

In summary: "Taxpayers in this area should not be allowed the same choice that I personally have taken advantage of, because that's what a lifelong bureaucrat would have wanted." If you're so bothered by our new homes replacing the dilapidated, shuttered ones, then feel free to never come back to MY neighborhood.

E.L. James
E.L. James

Or stop moving into other ppl's neighborhoods and declaring it not good enough. Then finding ways to kick ppl out. Columbus!

John Guzzardo
John Guzzardo

So what your saying - just go with me on this - if a SINGLE white/Latino/Asian family moved into a traditionally black neighborhood, established ties and friendships, took care of their OWN house and renovated because they took pride in their own house, and their neighbors also began to improve and renovate and beautify the area, that you would lead a charge to drum that one family out because the pride they showed in their own home, not bothering anyone else, is what cause change that you thought shouldn't happen? Because that's exactly what it sounds like you are saying. At last check, I thought that was diversity.

Kate Wehmeyer
Kate Wehmeyer

Not a blink in the comments here about the principal stopping the new mother from entering the school to avoid endorsing teen pregnancy. Yet 2 days ago the peanut gallery commenting on the ajc posting of the graduation/pregnancy story out of Maryland generally trashed the school in question.

Astropig
Astropig

Has that story been posted here? I must have missed it.

Holly Ziegler
Holly Ziegler

And all I could think is how people could take publicly shaming a pregnant girl as really wrong and offensive. You just never know what is going to be acceptable because it changes day to day.

Carole Green
Carole Green

The person that wrote this article says her daughter goes to a Charter School. Sounds like school choice is good for her family, but,not other children. Sad that the education system is so chaotic.

E.L. James
E.L. James

No, sounds like she knows she's a hypocrite. Even with her experience at a school she personally knew was worth leaving open.

Carole Green
Carole Green

She still made choices she thought were best for her family if her child still goes to a Charter school. I'm sure there are a lot of public schools where she lives.

Andre DeLara
Andre DeLara

Its too bad that the falling down houses were replaced with new buildings. Horrible everything just couldn't stay the same and the cycle of poverty in the area just couldn't remain.... Yes that is sarcasm.

Astropig
Astropig

"We've done it this way since before I was born"!!!! 


- The exact same argument that southern racists used to thwart desegregation of schools in the 50's.

Mitchell R. Tate Jr.
Mitchell R. Tate Jr.

I blame the lack of knowledge, not gentrification. "My people perish for lack of knowledge.." - Hosea 4:6 Every society requires the building block of strong families, strong families build strong communities, strong communities build strong cities. Address the family and people wouldn't want school choice. However because of the decay of responsibility, accountability, and families, enrollment declines at these schools. Parents must be involved in their kids lives and stats show how student performance improves with parental involvement. That means society has to hold everyone accountable no matter the circumstances of the parent and student. If we don't, expect more schools to close.

Astropig
Astropig

I can TOTALLY identify with the sentiments expressed above,


I felt the same way when my local cable company (Comcast) had to let a few people go the other day.They (Comcast) were victims of thousands of individuals making free choices that didn't benefit the people at Comcast.I tried to call them to arrange a little benefit "pancake breakfast"-type thing for the affected employees, and, after a couple of hours on hold,we somehow got disconnected.I just decided to send them an email.


I sent the email and got a very nice form letter-type reply.It was addressed to the wrong person,but I could feel them reaching out to me.

Alt AJC
Alt AJC

@Astropig 

Willing to share any photos similarly capturing your moment of supreme compassion? 

Astropig
Astropig

@Alt AJC @Astropig


I'm sure I have a Kodak film snapshot around somewhere.I'll have to look.It's been a few years since I could take those.See,digital photography "diverted" customers away from the victims at the Big K.


It's simply a crying shame that you can't continue to snap a roll of film,drive it down to the drugstore,send it off,wait a couple of weeks and then pay in advance to see that half of your shots are slightly out of focus.


We did that for like,94 years before Kodak became yet another victim of somebody.

Quincy Marks
Quincy Marks

Michael Lloyd Peggy D. Lloyd Sunshine Tezlyn Dwanna Law check this article out....

Peggy D. Lloyd
Peggy D. Lloyd

This was one reason why whitefoord was closed too .

Dwanna Law
Dwanna Law

This truly makes me sad \U0001f622