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Simple math adds up to a $147 million school

A rendering of the new North Atlanta High School.

It's August, and kids across the country are getting ready to go back to school, or dreading it.

In Georgia, one school with an eye-popping price tag opened its doors today. $147 million buys North Atlanta High School a 600-seat theater, a food-court-style cafeteria with a smoothie bar and more than 50 acres of athletic fields.

(Data courtesy of North Atlanta High School)

But here's another ... less impressive...  number: North Atlanta has a graduation rate of only 60 percent.

School leaders hope this investment will help turn things around. Is that too much to ask of a building?

This isn’t your average high school, but it’s not all about the bells and whistles.

“All the rooms will have smart boards, we’ll be wired for Wi-Fi and computer access. We have things like a 3-D graphics lab,” says Atlanta Board of Education chairman Reuben McDaniel. McDaniel’s daughter will be a freshman there.

The price tag has a lot of Georgia taxpayers questioning whether its all worth it, especially since the project came in $50 million over budget.

“The most important piece is creating expectations that are high. So I think over the next couple of years, the taxpayers will see not only do they have a great building, they have a great school,” says McDaniel.

That’s going to depend in part on this high-priced new school getting more kids across the finish line. Right now only about 60 percent graduate. The school’s roughly 1,400 students are a broad mix about half are black, 20 percent Hispanic, the rest white. Some come from wealth, others are homeless.

David Thompson is an education professor at Kansas State. He says feeling good about where you go every day matters.

“There’s an enormous amount of really good research that shows that the amount of pride in a school building, discipline problems decrease, level of learning increases,” he says.

Thompson says a fancy building isn’t as important as student-teacher ratios, or the quality of instructors and support staff. But North Atlanta High beats the days when we built cinderblock schools with almost no windows.

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.
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