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School asks city for Dawson Street School property

On Tuesday, the board of Hillside Montessori approached the LaGrange City Council to request that the city donate the Dawson Street School property to the Montessori school. 

LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton noted that the property has been vacant for some time, and whether the city donates it or not, the actual school building on the property will need to be demolished due to safety concerns The Dawson Street School property has not been used since the relocation of the Alpha Multipurpose Center. He said that he would like to see a something at the location that would attract positive activity in the community.

Council Member Tom Gore asked if the building could be repaired, and several people in attendance stated that the cost of repairing the school would be a monumental undertaking. The city council requested that City Manager Meg Kelsey investigate demolition costs, and the possibility of donating the property was not decided on Tuesday.

The Hillside Montessori group spoke at length about the benefits of the school itself, but they also highlighted ways the school plans to become part of the community in more ways than just its address. The private school currently operates out of the Unity Elementary School building that is owned by the Troup County School System, but board members said it needs a new location to support its growth. Hillside Montessori is a 501(c)3.

“Hillside Montessori is currently having a significant impact on children in our community, and we are not just serving the community with children from LaGrange,” Hillside Head of School Bethany Headrick said. “We have students that are coming to us from LaGrange, West Point, Hogansville, Lanett, Newnan, Carrolton, Fayetteville. These families are driving their children to the center of LaGrange to go to school. So, 70 percent of our staff right now is coming from areas like that as well. We have families who are making the choice, who have their houses on the market in Newnan, to move to LaGrange to be a part of Hillside Montessori.”

The school would also mean a significant investment in the Dixie Mill community. Board member Jeff Lukken said the entire project would cost more than $2 million. Lukken said the group has already raised a significant portion of the funds needed for the project, but fundraising efforts are ongoing. Council Member Jim Arrington asked when the school would open, if the land is donated.

“We’ve done a lot of leg work already,” Headrick said. “We’ve already hired and worked with architects. We’ve already raised a lot of the funding and worked with civil engineers. So, we’re ready to break ground in the next couple of months, as soon as we secure a location, so the timeline is within a year or two.”

Lukken said the goal is for the school to be open and operational by August 2020. 

Hillside Montessori has looked at other locations for the school, including a location near Great Wolf Lodge, but board members said that they would like to be part of a neighborhood community in its new location.

“We’d like to invest in this neighborhood, put a special school here as a neighborhood school to bring benefits to that neighborhood, to our students and to the City of LaGrange,” Lukken said. 

Council members were generally in favor of finding a good use for the land, but there was some debate on donating the property. 

“I like the idea of a school actually being in the facility because generally, when schools leave areas, the area dies down,” Council Member LeGree McCamey said. “I really like the idea of a school coming back. Whether it is private [or public], I like the idea.”

The school has partnered with local groups to benefit the community in the past, with students helping test creeks with the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, installing a Little Free Library, installing a Little Free Pantry, volunteering at Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen and hosting a festival in the Hillside community, among other projects. 

Headrick said the school is also currently working to secure an endowment that could allow more children from the community to attend the school. Council Member Nathan Gaskin was particularly interested in how the endowment could increase diversity at the school. Headrick said that the school currently has about 75 students, with about 20 percent non-white students, and she said the school hopes to see attendees from the Dixie Mill community where the property is located, if the school is able to locate there.

“What we are trying to create here is a facility that blends in with the neighborhood around it,” Headrick said. “Something that is warm and home-like and inviting. That is not overpowering. That is welcoming to people from the community but also to the children that we serve.”

Headrick said the building would be designed to facilitate the school’s curriculum, with features like large windows, a playground open to the community and a community garden overseen by the students. She said the school’s inclusion of both playful elements and areas open to the community was intentional.

Headrick emphasized that the Montessori aims to teach children life skills, and she said the students regularly raise funds “through meaningful work” for field trips and activities, instead of asking parents for those funds. Those fundraisers have resulted in major trips to educational sites that the students chose.

“The Montessori philosophy is to teach children to love to learn, as they teach the children about leadership, about independence, about critical thinking,” Lukken said. 

The LaGrange City Council plans to discuss the future of the Dawson Street School property at a later date.