About 10 white signs several yards apart dot the open area across the driveway from the Garden Hills Elementary School on Sheridan Drive.
They bear the words, “Please Keep Off Field.”
Beneath the signs is verdant, lush grass.
A year ago, the field was a construction site.
Two years ago, it was a patchwork of grass, weeds and dirt surrounded by shoddy playground equipment, an old swing set and a hillside covered in underbrush. It is the first impression of the school, and for many, many years, it wasn’t a good one.
What a difference a year makes.
Along with the new grass, there is brand new playground equipment, including climbing boulders with webbing, a towering treehouse fort and a long, wide, hillside slide. Outdoor classrooms, nature trails and a new track surround the field. A new brick amphitheater that matches the brick exterior of the 1938 building is in the middle of the double stairs leading up to the school’s main entrance.
The building is mostly empty, as are all Atlanta public schools. The system is virtual due to the coronavirus. The students are at home, sitting on computers while the nearly new field sits unused.
If there is one thing we know about the virus, being outside in the open air is better than being inside when it comes to possible transmission. The refurbished field is large enough to spread out, get exercise and learn through outdoor classrooms.
It might not be able to accommodate the more than 500 students all at the same time, but it seems perfect for these times.
When the school first opened more than 70 years ago, a creek ran through the area. Fulton County (Atlanta incorporated Buckhead in 1952) piped the creek, which still runs beneath. Many students ran across it to get to their school over the years.
Garden Hills Elementary School was one of the designated practice fields for Buckhead Baseball in my youth. Back in the 1980s, the area was mostly dirt and after rainstorms, mud. I spent many spring afternoons learning how to catch fly balls there. More recently, our son played flag football on the field through The Gym at Peachtree Presbyterian Church.
From the time I shagged ground balls to when our son was catching passes, Atlanta Public Schools had markedly improved the facilities. Still, it was disappointing for a community with so much that our public elementary school had a playground and field in such poor condition.
Acorns to Oaks, the Garden Hills Elementary Foundation, made it part of their mission to transform the patch of dirt and grass into a place of learning, of playing and of pride. The effort started in earnest about five years ago. Phase 1 wrapped up in the fall.
In addition to the $750,000 capital campaign for the endeavor, Acorns to Oaks raises between $80,000 and $100,000 each year for the school. The school determines how best to spend the additional funds.
The foundation is now moving into Phase II, which includes a field house with a covered outdoor area and, importantly, restrooms.
You see, the field is across the driveway from the school and down a flight of about 15 stairs. If a student needs to use the facilities, a teacher has to walk them back to the school building. This doesn’t work if more than one student requires the restroom if there are two teachers. Most of the time, there is just one.
The foundation expects to complete the field house in the summer of 2021.
The signs are on the field because several high school students and neighbors have been playing soccer and running wind sprints. Their cleats have damaged the wet grass. The foundation intends it to be open to the public, but the public needs to take care of it.
For now, the field is a reminder of what a community can do when it gets behind its school, putting money, time and resources into the places that matter most, especially, it seems, during a global pandemic.