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High School No. 9 will be unique for Clayton

By Curt Yeomans

Everything about Clayton County's High School No. 9 is big.

It is designed to have a capacity of 1,850 students, and there will be 100 classrooms. It will have one of the largest gymnasiums of all Clayton County high schools. The two-story building will occupy a total of 297,918 square feet of space.

It is also one of three schools which will eventually operate on 155 acres of land behind Southern Regional Medical Center in Riverdale.

The price tag is big, too -- an estimated $54.2 million to build the high school, and an adjoining football stadium. The school is scheduled to open its doors in August 2009.

Now, High School No. 9 is a shell. "They are probably 60 percent done building the school," said school system architect Klaus Darnall, during a recent tour of the construction site. "They are anxious to get utilities in here, so they can have lights and heat in here."

Compared to other high schools in the county, Clayton school officials say they believe High School No. 9 will break the mold, by straying from the norm.

The new high school will feature larger windows to allow more natural light into the building. "There are two trains of thought on windows," said Darnall. "One is that you have windows, so you can look out, and your mind is engaged by what you see. The other train of thought is that without windows, you won't have distractions."

The two-story school will be separated into wings for each grade level. There will also be a wing for extracurricular classes, such as band, orchestra and chorus. The school system is also taking advantage of the school's proximity to Southern Regional by putting in an extra health-occupation lab.

The ninth-graders will have their own cafeteria, as they will be put in a freshman academy that keeps them largely separated from the rest of the student body.

The school will also feature a decentralized administration. Administrators will have offices spread out across the school. "For security reasons, they need to be spread out, so they can keep the school safe," said Darnall.

The school will also have several sports facilities, including a soccer field; physical education field; baseball field; tennis courts; softball field, and a football practice field. Those facilities are part of the school.

However, the adjoining 5,000-seat, natural-grass-turf football stadium will be separate from the school. "That stadium will not belong exclusively to this high school," said Darnall. "Just like our other stadiums, all of the high schools will share this stadium."

The property will also eventually house an elementary school next to the high school. A middle school will be built across Garden Walk Boulevard from the high school.

The question that remains, however, is what will be done with the high school facility, once it opens. District leaders and school board members will have to decide, in the coming months, who will attend the school. As is the case whenever a new school opens, the board will have to look at redistricting issues in early 2009.

When planning for the school began in early 2007, district officials anticipated it would help relieve overcrowding at Riverdale and Morrow high schools, which exceeded their capacities by hundreds of students at the time.

In November, Superintendent John Thompson floated the idea of closing the existing Riverdale High School, and using High School No. 9 as its replacement. However, Thompson said Wednesday that he "took it [the recommendation] off the table" after reviewing plans and data related to the project.

Since this summer, the school system has lost more than 1,700 high school students, while it has had to deal with a loss of accreditation. Thompson and other school officials, including School Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson, are working to get the accreditation restored before the end of the school year, and expect an influx of students after that goal is accomplished.

The new high school has been at the center of a controversy, which began in September 2006, when the property was purchased by the school system. The system paid a total of $18 million to developer John D. Stephens to purchase the land, and to have Stephens' company perform site preparation work on the land.

Included in that sum was $10.2 million to purchase the land. An appraisal conducted for the school system showed the land would be worth $8 million, if it were in perfect condition. However, a large section of dirt had been removed from the property, by one of Stephens' companies, to help build the fifth runway at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

In May 2007, a Clayton County grand jury accused the school board of poor stewardship of taxpayer dollars for paying more for the land than their appraisals showed it was worth.