In the 1960s, nearly every neighborhood in central Raleigh had its own elementary school.
But the combination of integration, white flight and population shifts to the suburbs shut down many of these old-time Raleigh schools. Now two of them may be pressed back into duty to help educate the new wave of students moving into the heart of the city.
Wake County school administrators are looking at the feasibility of reactivating the Thompson School and the Crosby-Garfield School, both in Southeast Raleigh near downtown. Both buildings, owned by the county and used for county offices and by community groups, might be returned to the school system and reopened as schools as soon as fall 2013.
“I can’t think of a better use for an old school than what it was originally built for,” said Wake County Manager David Cooke.
Cooke, Wake County schools Superintendent Tony Tata and school and county staff toured both former schools two weeks ago. Now school district staffers are working on plans to see how much it would cost to renovate the schools and what programs might be added there.
For the plans to be approved, the school board would have to ask permission from the Wake County Board of Commissioners. After the schools closed, they were declared surplus and turned over to the county.
Tata said the idea of looking at former schools came up after seeing the challenges of finding enough seats at schools inside the Raleigh Beltline under the new student assignment plan.
Tata said he had his facilities staff look at various closed schools, with Crosby-Garfield and Thompson the best options. He said some buildings like the former Boylan Heights School, which now houses the pre-kindergarten Project Enlightenment program, were ruled out.
Before the 1970s, Raleigh was largely limited to the area inside the I-440 Beltline. Students were educated at places such as Oberlin Road School, Lewis School, Morson High, Poole School, Barbee School and Murphey School.
The Thompson School was opened in 1923 at 567 E. Hargett St. as a whites-only school. Demographic shifts resulted in it becoming a black school by the 1960s. In 1971, Thompson was one of the schools closed by the Raleigh City Public School System during an integration effort to send black students to white schools.
Throughout the 1970s, more Raleigh schools closed as white flight to the then-separate Wake County school system left many campuses underenrolled. The systems merged in 1976.
It took the addition of magnet school programs at inner-city Raleigh schools in the 1980s to draw in suburban students to stem the tide of closures. Elementary schools such as Hunter, Washington and Wiley, once recommended for closure, now offer popular magnet programs.
The Crosby-Garfield School, located at 568 E. Lenoir St., closed in 1985. The building opened in 1939 as a segregated black school.
“These old schools were built like tanks,” said J. Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina. “It won’t take much to make them ready to be used as schools again.”
Howard said school boards are realizing it’s cheaper in urban areas to reopen old schools than to build new ones.
Both schools were considered obsolete when they were closed. But the county has made major renovations since acquiring them.
Joe Desormeaux, the school system’s assistant superintendent of facilities, said both schools are in good shape.
Several community groups such as Strengthening the Black Family, a HeadStart program and a preschool program for children with developmental delays occupy the Crosby-Garfield building. Several Wake County Human Services agencies provide assistance for veterans, homeless people and people with mental illness in the Thompson building.
Cooke said there’s enough county office space to relocate the groups if the buildings become schools again.
Danny Coleman, chairman of the South Central Citizens Advisory Council, which advises the Raleigh City Council, said he’s excited about the buildings being used as schools again. But Coleman said he’d hope some community groups could remain in the buildings.
“If they’re talking about community schools, I can’t think of anything more community than having them stay in the buildings,” Coleman said.
But Howard said it’s far easier relocating community groups than finding space for a new school. “They’ll be assets to the neighborhood, and the neighborhood will be an asset to those schools,” he said.
Desormeaux said that because of their small size, the buildings would likely be better suited for a program like an academy or special themed school.
Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a group that’s been critical of the new student assignment plan, said Wake should consider placing magnet programs at both schools.
“If they’re owned by the county, it makes sense to look at them for schools to save taxpayers money,” she said.