An upbeat website for a downtown school

the Southerner Online

An upbeat website for a downtown school

the Southerner Online

An upbeat website for a downtown school

the Southerner Online

As part of a land swap deal with the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, a new Public Storage building is being constructed on Monroe Drive near the Eastside BeltLine Trail entrance, a street away from Midtown, with its previous location on Piedmont Avenue.
New storage center set for development on BeltLine
Aerin JonesApril 13, 2024

As part of a land swap deal with the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, a new Public Storage building is being constructed on Monroe Drive near the Eastside...

Virginia-Highland Elementary School opens for first school year

Sierra Pape
On Aug. 1, Virginia Highland Elementary opened its doors for its first academic year. Approximately 535 students enrolled at Virginia Highland Elementary, many of which previously attended Morningside Elementary School and Springdale Park Elementary School.

The most recent addition to the Midtown cluster, Virginia-Highland Elementary School (VHE), opened its doors for its inaugural academic year on Aug. 1. Despite initial concerns about the transition, some parents and teachers feel as though the school year has started smoothly.

Virginia-Highland parent Jessica Olson, whose children previously attended Springdale Park Elementary School, was initially hesitant to transfer her children to Virginia-Highland. 

“Originally, I was upset about having to leave SPARK [Springdale Park Elementary],” Olson said. “It was scary to start a new school because I wanted to make sure that my kids would be getting everything that SPARK had worked so hard for the last 10-plus years to develop.”

However, Olson’s perspective shifted once her children began school at Virginia-Highland.. 

“We couldn’t be happier with how it’s turned out,” Olson said. “The parents and teachers and Principal Terry Harness just worked so hard to make Virginia-Highland this really awesome school. Even though it’s only been nine weeks, we’re really happy with Virginia-Highland Elementary, and we’re so thankful to be a part of that school.”

Olson attributes her family’s positive experience at Virginia-Highland to the school’s faculty.

“It has been way smoother and easier than I thought it would be and that’s definitely a testament to Harness’ leadership and all the hard work the teachers and parents and PTO have put in,” Olson said. 

Virginia-Highland parent Averi Magnuson said Principal Harness’ leadership reaffirmed her trust in the school’s future after witnessing his interactions with students at the school.

“I walked my daughter into the office to get a tardy slip and Principal Harness saw her and very sweetly told her not to wait in line, and to go ahead and go to her classroom without getting a tardy slip,” Magnuson said. 

Magnuson also noted Harness’ adaptability around the school’s diversity.

“And then at the same time, he identified a new family that was waiting in line that was not English-speaking,” Magnuson said. “He immediately switched to Spanish and helped that family to navigate their first day, and it really just made me feel so much pride for VHE and for the kind of principal that we have in place. I feel like VHE is going to do really good things for our community because of its leadership.”

Virginia-Highland parent Natalya Perullo said the faculty’s optimism at Virginia-Highland helped ease the transition to the new school.

“It was just such a positive energy meeting the teachers; everybody was so excited,” Perullo said. “One of the moms in the neighborhood hosted a meet and greet, and we got to meet Principal Harness and Assistant Principal Denise Bringslid. They were outstanding; they just brought so much comfort to everybody, so we were really excited about them as the leadership team.”

Magnuson, whose daughter previously attended Mary Lin Elementary, said the communication between her and her daughter’s teachers helped facilitate a smoother transition to the new school.

“Nora’s [Magnuson’s daughter] teacher was personally texting me during the first couple weeks when either Nora had a bad day, or when we needed to figure out last-minute changes to her leaving school or being picked up from school or riding the bus,” Magnuson said. “She would text with me personally and all of that really helped me to feel secure with Nora’s situation, and that her teacher was looking out for her.”

Fourth grade Virginia-Highland teacher Jon Bookspun, who is a former teacher at Morningside Elementary School, said he has noticed the effort other teachers and faculty members have made to create a welcoming atmosphere at Virginia-Highland. 

“I’ve never been at a place where every single person was working so hard every single minute,” Bookspun said. “I think that people came in with an attitude like they were really going to do the very best that they could to make this thing work, so it’s been neat.”

Of the students enrolled at Virginia-Highland, approximately 450 students came from the previous Springdale Park zone and approximately 80 students came from the previous Morningside zone. Perullo said that it has been particularly challenging for her children to acclimate to the new school as former Morningside students.

“One thing I feel like we overlooked was our eldest,” Perullo said. “She makes friends typically very easily, but the transition has been a lot harder for her. So, she feels very alone, but we have told her this is a great opportunity for her to understand what it feels like to be somebody that’s a new student.”

Bookspun has tried to provide support for his students finding the transition to the new school challenging, and has noticed that students typically in need of support were former Morningside students. 

“I have found that I’ve reached out more to the Morningside kids because, in each class, there’s like two kids who went to Morningside and the other 22 went to SPARK,” Bookspun said. “So, [SPARK kids] are really comfortable because most of the faces they see, they’re used to.”

Despite the difficulties Perullo has experienced with transitioning her children from Morningside to Virginia-Highland, she appreciates the efforts of the new school to welcome the students.

“My first grader was selected student of the month, and that was really special,” Perullo said. “At Virginia-Highland, they really made a big deal about the student of the month, and they do a monthly assembly for [the student] and really feature them and they talk about specific characteristics. I feel like that’s a really good way of positively reinforcing instead of constantly talking about what not to do.”

Assistant Principal Bringslid said that due to the Virginia-Highland Elementary location previously being Inman Middle School, the school has more space than typical elementary schools have. This has enabled the school to implement multi-sensory learning spaces, including the STEAM lab, phonics lab, a makerspace and a math gym. 

Bringslid said that these additions have enhanced the students’ learning experiences.

“Every time I observe any classes that are in those spaces, they’re very engaged; they’re having a lot of fun,” Bringslid said. “And I think that it is important to get the kids moving. I think that a lot of times in elementary schools, especially in upper grades, we focus on test numbers and achievement data. And while that is an important component of education, another important component is moving your body and feeding your mind.”

The location of Virginia-Highland Elementary has fostered a greater sense of community for Olson, as she and other parents have been more easily able to walk their children to school.

“It’s a more pleasant walk from where we live to get to Virginia-Highland Elementary than it was to get to SPARK just because at SPARK, we had to cross North Highland which is a busy environment,” Olson said. “So, VHE definitely has a very neighborhood feel. Walking to and from you see all your neighbors because we don’t get bus service within the mile, and so it feels like a true local neighborhood school.”

According to Bringslid, more than 60 percent of students at Virginia-Highland walk or cycle to school. Bookspun said the walkability the school provides makes Virginia-Highland unique. 

“It’s very much a community school where people don’t live very far from the school, so there are a lot of people who ride their bikes, there’s a lot of people who walk, there’s a very limited number of people who take the bus,” Bookspun said. “You feel right in the center of the community, and it ends up feeling kind of greener because everyone’s walking and biking.”

Due to the vast number of students walking or cycling to school, Bringslid said that the Virginia-Highland PTO and administration has had to place various measures to ensure the safety of the students when getting to and from school.

“We have a crossing guard [and] a full time school resource officer, and we have worked with the PTO to push out bike safety information to parents and kids to make sure that they are practicing safe biking and safe walking,” Bringslid said. “Our school resource officer has also played a really big role in helping us keep everyone safe coming to and leaving school.”

46 percent of students at Virginia-Highland are students of color, according to Bringslid. Magnuson said the increase in diversity at the new school is beneficial for her daughter. 

“I think that [the increase in diversity] is a positive because [my daughter] has more diverse perspectives in her classroom than she did in Mary Lin,” Magnuson said. “She enjoys meeting new people and kids that are different from her, so I think it’s been a fun thing for her to be able to meet a lot of different people that may be different ethnicities, cultures or even religions.”

Bringslid said the support from the surrounding community has greatly contributed to Virginia-Highland’s successful start to the school year.

“We have a significant number of school partners, and they have all been integral in fundraising efforts and sponsorship efforts primarily via the PTO,” Bringslid said. “We have had a really wonderful outpouring of support from mostly the local businesses in and around Virginia Highland; we’ve had various restaurants donate food for teachers on special days, but above and beyond that, monetary donations and sponsorships have been really great from surrounding communities.”

Magnuson said that while being a new school comes with unique challenges, Virginia-Highland’s supportive community and leadership will enable it to flourish. 

“I think the first couple of years are always going to be a little bit more bumpy, and that’s to be expected,” Magnuson said. “But I think with the leadership and the parents and the community, VHE has the potential to be one of the best schools in the system. And I won’t be surprised if it’s ranked as a blue ribbon school sooner than later.”

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About the Contributors
Connie Erdozain, A&E Managing Editor
Connie Erdozain is a junior and this is her third year writing for the Southerner. When she isn't writing, Connie enjoys painting, playing the piano, reading and spending time with her friends.
Sierra Pape, News Managing Editor
Sierra Pape is a junior and this is her third year on the Southerner staff. When she is not writing, you will find her running for the Midtown cross country team, working for Midtown Votes and political organizations outside of school, and singing and playing the guitar. She is excited to contribute to the paper for years to come.

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