The “new normal” is not just about mask wearing and social distancing — it’s about a new chapter at Midtown. The addition of a new building, name and support from the school are helping to redefine the school experience.
The New Building
The new “A Wing,” which is at the corner of Charles Allen Drive and 10th Street, has given the school more space to stretch out and for students to learn in a more comfortable environment. According to the Atlanta Public Schools Facilities Department, the school had capacity for 1,275 students before the building that has expanded to 1,500 students. The addition eliminated portable classrooms.
“I was thrilled when I learned the new building would be built,” AP Human Geography teacher Christopher Wharton said. “We have had trailers for way too long, and we’ve always had way more teachers than classrooms. My first two years here, I was on a cart [floating from classroom to classroom]; so, having a building where we can fit the whole Midtown staff is very exciting.”
The new space has floor-to-ceiling windows with views of Piedmont Park and plenty of natural light in classrooms. The new building also offers a permanent solution for teachers who did not have actual classrooms and floated from classroom to classroom, as well as for teachers in portable classrooms, such as Latin teacher Amy Leonard.
“It’s been fabulous,” Leonard said of her classroom in the new building. “It’s wonderful. I love it so much. I can’t even stand it. World Language was in the trailers for years; so, it is like a dream come true.”
Senior Sophie Rice was delighted about the addition of the new building.
“I was so excited when I heard the new building was being built because it was so crowded in the hallways and in the staircases,” Rice said. “While there is some crowding, it’s definitely a lot better because of the space the new building provides.”
Another notable feature of the school is Midtown’s new parking lot adjacent to the building. There is also a circular parking lot in front of the main building on Charles Allen Drive.
“I think it’s a huge upgrade from the dirt lot [the old parking lot where the A wing currently is],” senior Langston Hogan said. “However, I feel like there still isn’t enough parking space for the amount of people who drive to school. I sometimes end up having to parallel park on Tenth Street.
Along with classroom space, the new design features a main entrance plaza, according to the same APS report. Features include ADA accessibility and enhanced security, in combination with new security gates, enclosing Midtown from outsiders.
“There’s a misperception that they’re [the gates] designed to keep students inside the campus of Midtown, but that’s not the case,” Assistant Principal Carrie MacBrien said. “The purpose of the gates is to secure the perimeter of the school so outsiders don’t wander inside campus.”
The new building also features a large, colorful media center. Librarian Brian Montero believes the new library’s location is essential.
“Before, we were a little bit out of the way, so it was easy for people to forget that it [the media center] was there,” Montero said. “If students did, they would think about it, but just never bothered to come down because they didn’t want to travel so far. Being here, we are a lot closer to everybody, teachers and students, so we’re just more in the mix.”
Sophomore Arshia Larestani has frequented the new library and appreciates the space it provides for students.
“I like the open space and the aesthetically-pleasing design it has,” Larestani said. “The new media center can also serve as a hangout place for some students now, thanks to its cafe-like section at the opposite side of the main entrance.”
In addition to the media center, the renovation included another space that all Midtown students can utilize — the cafeteria. The cafeteria has been expanded and has an addition of a multi-purpose room, providing students with extra seating and room for extracurricular activities.
“It definitely gives people more room to eat in, which is just good in general,” sophomore William Sanders said. “For Covid, it also helps people spread out.”
Sanders said the old cafeteria was over crowded and noisy. However, with new additions of space, from the cafeteria to the media center, there is more accommodation for students.
A new name and direction
After a year and a half of virtual school, students returned to a school with a new name. The name change of Henry W. Grady to Midtown and the subsequent rebranding also marked a turning point in the school’s history.
In 2019, a group of about 200 Grady students submitted a petition to the school board seeking a new name because of the white supremacist views that Grady expressed in speeches. He was editor of the Atlanta Constitution and died in 1889. In the fall of 2020, Midtown sent out a survey where students were able to choose a name from select options, which included Piedmont, Freedom, Ida B. Wells, Dr. Thomas E. Adger and Midtown high schools.
Once the school settled on a new name, art teacher John Brandhorst, who chaired the Identity Committee, led the effort to develop the new logo and visual identity for Midtown. Brandhorst helped establish a coalition of parents and professionals, both graphic designers and corporate brand specialists, for the Identity Committee, to develop a new vision for the school.
“We dismissed ideas that were too common, or that didn’t fit with the aesthetic we were trying to create,” Brandhorst said. “The final logo was a function of those conversations, about Midtown being in the center and how it’s an intersection of lots of different kinds of people — that intersectionality.”
Karri Hobson-Pape, a Midtown parent, served on the Identity Committee for the school’s logo. While the committee focused on the big picture aspects of Midtown’s rebranding, its goal was to create the graphic identity everyone will see — the new Midtown logo. The committee made sure that the logo met five guiding principles: distinctiveness, authenticity, functionality, flexibility and recognition.
“I’m very pleased with what we landed on,” Hobson-Pape said. “I think it speaks to what makes Midtown High School special. A visual Identity represents a story, and this narrative reflects the power of intersection, of so many different aspects coming together.”
Senior Everett Stubin was a fan of the name Midtown and is pleased with the renaming of the school.
“The name ‘Grady’ was definitely holding back some people’s pride for the school because of the history it held,” Stubin said. “Midtown is a good name that almost anyone can get behind.”
Junior Neisha Ball agrees the name change ushered in a new time for the school and community.
“I think it is simple, catchy and will bring about a new era that will allow lots of positive changes for the school and community,” Ball said. “Given that the school is so close to downtown and such an intersection of different demographics and groups, it’s really important that it does not reflect anything negative or insensitive towards anyone.”
While Midtown’s rebranding is obvious around the school — from the new logo to the new name — there are aspirations that it will result in a cultural shift that goes beyond the school’s new visual identity, math teacher Laketa Scott Blue said.
“I’m hoping that the rebranding of the school will go beyond the name,” Blue said. “The new name allows us to present ourselves differently. I think the name will wash away the stigma that was there. I do not know if it is going to bring about systemic change, but at least people will not think so much about the name that we had.”
Some students believe the rebranding is largely symbolic and does not affect the way people in the Midtown community think and feel.
“It’s still the same,” junior Gabe Fowler said. “It’s still just Grady. It’s just that they changed the outside of it; so, the inside is still the same. Not like the physical inside but the ‘mental inside.’”
A new year for mental and physical health
This year, to address the concerns like Fowler’s, the Midtown administration is adding new measures to address inclusivity.
“The school has hired more personnel to address certain gaps that may have been present, albeit unintentional, with our bilingual communication and additional graduation coach,” Assistant Principal Tekeshia Hollis said. “A lot of money has gone into being able to meet students where they are. A career liaison was added last year because not everybody wants to be college bound, and our goal is to be college or career ready.”
The school is also adding new programs and resources to provide mental health support for students. Two of these programs are CHRIS 180 (Creativity, Honor, Respect, Integrity and Safety), a service designed to provide counseling for at-risk students, and Social Emotional Learning (SEL), which occurs four days a week.
“We have CHRIS 180 as a partnership with the district,” Hollis said. “We have SEL actually embedded within the school day with a stand-alone from what we have been doing the past two years. Teachers are getting more training around Social Emotional Learning, and the counselors are being more involved in instances where students may act out to look more at restorative justice.”
While new to the school year, some believe that the delivery method of the SEL lessons is preventing student engagement.
“I think it’s kind of hard to be sitting in a room with 32 other students, all of the students on separate devices, and being asked to engage and be vulnerable in that sort of format — on a Zoom call with several hundred students,” English teacher Lisa Willoughby said. “I’m not sure that that is an ideal delivery system.”
Junior Chloe Walker believes the lessons taught during the SEL periods are not applicable to students’ mental health issues.
“I feel like a lot of the lessons that we’ve learned, or had to do so far, don’t really apply to real mental problems or mental health issues that people my age at Midtown are facing,” Walker said.
The administration believes the new SEL model is a valuable part of the school day that allows students time for their mental health.
“I think the SEL moment that occurs four times a week is playing a great part, and teachers are also intentionally infusing SEL into the curriculum,” Assistant Principal Willie Vincent said. “It’s a part of the class to talk about how we are and how we connect to others. In addition, we have our social workers and counseling staff in place to help with any concept issues that are involved with mental health.”
Midtown is also trying to ensure students remain physically healthy by instituting new measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. This includes mandating mask wearing at all times inside the building.
“I’m thrilled that Atlanta Public Schools is requiring masks,” social studies teacher Mary Van Atta said. “A couple of kids were coming back from lunch the other day, and they pulled up their masks when I asked them to, and they were like ‘Oh snap, I forgot to put my mask on.’ So, people have generally been pretty good about, in my experience, following the mask protocols.”
Midtown is also implementing contact tracing to isolate students who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have come in contact with someone who has contracted the virus. The school has a “self reporting” form and uses seating charts for all classes.
“The teachers will be notified so that we can get the information from the seating chart, who was beside, in front, six feet,” nurse Wanda Taylor said. “Also, on that self-reporting form, it asks you to identify the people you may have been close to so that we can notify them as a close contact: [who you] ate lunch with, you might have been sitting next to on the bus or anything like that. Then, we go about sending out letters to those parents whose child may have been exposed to someone.”
Additionally, COVID-19 vaccinations are being offered to students and staff through the school. Midtown’s clinic, which opened on Aug.13, gave the vaccine to 80 members of the Midtown community.
“We had a company come in, and they’ll be back on Sept. 3, to give students that were able to get vaccinated … their second dose,” Taylor said. “I plan to discuss with Dr. Bockman if we can sign up more kids when they come back in September. That way they can come back again a few weeks later and do it again, and hopefully we can have more of a turnout of students to get vaccinated.”
Taylor is encouraging parents to get their children vaccinated and follow the new COVID protocols.
“The simple thing you [parents] can do is let them [students] get vaccinated and encourage everyone to wear their masks,” Taylor said. “It’s that simple, and it doesn’t even cost you anything. Parents choose for their children; so, they should choose the good thing for them.”
While the new school year is bringing about change, Vincent wants one thing to stay the same.
“My personal goal is stay in school — the whole year,” Vincent said. “We’re going to do everything that we can to stay safe because I think it is so invigorating to have all of the students in the building. Maybe the students all prefer to be at home on Monday, but we just love having you here.”
Along with Vincent, senior Dejah Phillips is optimistic about Midtown’s future.
“I feel like the school is on a really good path,” Phillips said. “The new building, cafeteria and logo allow the school to improve more and grow in a lot of different areas.”
While there is a strong emphasis on safety at school, the new building creates space for the future.
“I think aesthetically, the new building speaks to the quality of the community,” Vincent said. “There’s something really calming about the building — the windows, the views — and I think it just sort of typifies the soul of Midtown High School.”