EAST LAKE — Commercial strength and residential stability are signs of a neighborhood's vitality. Equally as important is the quality of its schools.
So says Atlanta developer and philanthropist Tom Cousins.
Cousins, chairman emeritus, of Cousins Properties Inc., was one of several dignitaries who gathered on the back nine of the Charlie Yates Golf Course Tuesday for the ceremonial turning of the the dirt on construction of Charles R. Drew Senior Academy.
The groundbreaking brings to fruition a long-hoped for dream of a K-12 educational institution under the Drew Charter School banner, one of the best-performing schools in Atlanta Public Schools and across the state.
Indeed, Gov. Nathan Deal, a longtime supporter of the school and its mission, noted that Drew's 6th through 8th grade classes rank No. 1 in math and language arts tests among their peers within APS.
When it opened in 2000 to serve mainly minority students from the Villages of East Lake , it ranked last last among APS schools.
Drew also is No. 1 statewide out of 301 primary schools and 134 middle schools that have a majority student population of low-income black kids, Deal said.
"I'm proud of what's happened here with your school up to this point," Deal said.
Cousins, who also is a board member of the East Lake Foundation, said tackling the quality of schools was just as important as other social investments made in the community and its residents.
The foundation was created in 1995 to turn the neighborhood once known as "Little Vietnam" around and give its residents the social tools and resources needed for economic improvement.
It was a community without hope, Cousins said.
But its turnaround shows "what is possible and what can be done," Cousins told East Atlanta Patch, adding that East Lake is safer in terms of crime than his own North Atlanta neighborhood.
"We didn't intend to go into the school business, but it became apparent that if it was going to happen, we were going to have to do something about it."
The senior academy, which is part of the Drew Charter School, will be 200,000 square feet and will be home to Drew’s Junior and Senior Academies — grades 6 through 12.
It is expected to cost $73 million to construct, and has more than $60 million in committed funds from private individuals and corporate donors including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation.
Construction, school officials said, will be done at no expense to APS. It is slated to open in 2014.
The senior campus, which the school said will be built to stringent environmental and energy conservation standards in mind for LEED certification will include:
- Two specialty laboratories for engineering and design
- Seven project learning laboratories and seven additional state-of-the-art science laboratories
- Integrated arts studios
- Two gymnasiums, a full-size track and field for athletics and community wellness
- A 500-seat performing arts center for Drew students and the greater East Lake community
At full capacity, Drew Senior Academy will serve 1,000 sixth through 12th graders complementing the 1,000 pupils at the main Pre-K-to-5th-grade campus.
Speaking to the Drew students assembled for the groundbreaking, Cousins told them that they were future and that much is expected of them.
"We need you to be our future leaders to help this country live up to its potential," Cousins said.
"What we and you are doing here at Drew is being watched very carefully by folks across the country."