Hall County Board of Education
What: Work session meeting
When: 5 p.m. Monday
Where: Chestatee High School chorus room, 3005 Sardis Road, Gainesville
If the Hall County Board of Education decides to move forward with closing Jones Elementary School, residents in the surrounding Chicopee community are concerned that the area would lose more than just its student population.
“I feel like this is a very unique place. It combines historic value with aesthetic charm and a close-knit community,” said Andrea Chastain, president of the Association of Chicopee Residents, Inc.
Although she’s lived in other areas, including metro Atlanta, Chastain says she chose to settle in the Chicopee area for the last five years for a number of reasons, including her neighbors.
“Chicopee is really just like one big family — I’ve never experienced a sense of community to this degree before in any other neighborhood,” she said.
At the heart of that community is Jones Elementary, a Hall County school since 1958.
Although Hall Schools Superintendent Will Schofield has said that the school won’t be torn down if the board decides to close it to trim the system’s budget, Chastain says members of the community association still are worried.
“Given that it is the epicenter of our neighborhood, the bottom line is that its appearance and function will directly affect all of the homeowners,” she said. “It’s as if the school board is looking at the school as a separate cell that happens to be a part of a far removed entity, but that’s not the case.”
“This is a neighborhood, and that school is a part of that neighborhood.”
The board is expected to make a final decision about the school during its work session Monday.
If the school is closed, many of the neighbors in the community have said during public hearings that they worry about the historic integrity of the school building and the overall community being compromised.
The Chicopee community was designed in the 1920s by architect Earle Sumner Draper for the Johnson & Johnson Corp. The goal of his design was to create a modernized village town for the workers of the company’s Chicopee Mill. The community’s all-brick structures, paved sidewalks and roads and other conveniences were unheard of at the time for mill towns.
Draper would go on to design and improve more than 100 communities around the country. He was also appointed by two separate presidents to serve as the assistant administrator and later chief administrator of the Federal Housing Administration.
“Another concern is that (Jones Elementary) was originally the property of the Chicopee Mill, as were all of the homes on the neighborhood,” Chastain said.
“It was a gift to Hall County. It feels like a slap in the face for them to take a gift and make changes to it that would have a negative impact on the neighborhood that so generously donated the school in the first place.”
If the school is closed, residents worry that the vacant structure not only will negatively impact property values, but also could be a target for vandalism.
System administrators say the school could potentially be used for a pre-school or a “K-12 educational enterprise on a limited basis.”
Instead of possibly splitting existing Jones students between two schools — McEver and Chicopee Woods elementaries — Chastain says that if the school needs to generate more income, it could leave the students where they are and open extra classroom space to a pre-school provider.
“We are sympathetic to their budget concerns, but we just want them to consider other options,” Chastain said. “True, there has been an economic downturn, but that’s cyclical. It doesn’t last. Why make a permanent decision based on a temporary situation?
“I don’t believe everything is always black and white. Sometimes there’s a gray area and I don’t think the board is considering that.”
One way or another, a decision is expected Monday.
“I would implore the board to take a step back and consider the amount of irreparable damage that could be done by closing that school. It represents someone who had a vision,” Chastain said.
“When something has been around for 80 years it becomes an institution. It is people caring that keeps history alive. Once you mess something like that up, you can’t go back.”