Construction brings fresh new look to century-old school


What students used to know as the library, once filled with shelves of books and rows of computers, is now gutted. The bare concrete walls are exposed and the wooden shelves are nowhere to be seen. The iconic DHS library is now another construction project – a sight that is becoming more commonplace for DHS.

The Decatur population has grown exponentially, leaving no space in the high school for the upcoming grades according to superintendent Dr. David Dude.

“If you look at our kindergarten class right now, it’s about twice as big as our senior class,” Dude said. “It’s a linear progression up….if all of those people stay in Decatur and continue going up [through] grade levels…and [if] more people keep moving in, we will [run out of] room.”

Phase one of the construction laid out the creation of the new cafeteria, as well as the math and science classrooms. Phase 2/3 will create new classrooms and a courtyard, renovate the old library [saucer], and create a new media center. The school will also have a new entrance.

Construction manager Matt Albright is looking forward to the new face of the school.

“It’s going to be a transformed campus,” he said. The plans are to make the front of the school on Commerce Street. “It’s a facelift, so to speak,” Dude said.

The main entrance of the school will no longer be under the media center. Susan Riley, DHS media clerk, explained how the current renovations near the new building are soon to be the front of the school.

“We’re supposed to be at the back of the school [near the cafeteria],” Riley said. “It’s just a mound of dirt at this point.”

This mound of dirt will be transformed into an “industrial space,” according to Albright.

The new building will create a courtyard between the original structure and new wings, adding a unique feel to DHS.

“The feel of the [saucer] is going [away],” Albright said.

The changes at DHS are making some worry that the old building will disappear. Riley said. “We had a lot of random people who’d come, saying they want to see [the saucer] one last time.”

The saucer has been the home of the media center since the school was built in the 1950s.

These “random people” were in fact former students, hoping to catch a glimpse of the library before the construction tore it down. “[They were] just thrilled to death when I’d say ‘no, it’s not going away,’” Riley said.

This unique symbol of DHS has been at the front of the school since the school was built in the 1950s.

“We wanted the old media center…to be the face of the high school,” said Noel Maloof, chief operating officer of City Schools of Decatur.

“It is a nice piece of mid century architecture that was put on the building when it was originally built.”

Some members of the community agree that the saucer should stay.

“The face of Decatur that people have come to know over many years is changing. So anytime there is a part that people identify with that’s at risk, people have strong feelings about it,” said Dr. Cheryl Nahmias, IB Coordinator. Before starting the construction, DHS reached out to the community for feedback. When the school system suggested getting rid of the saucer, the community was outraged.

 “There were conversations on social media… about people feeling pretty strongly that [the saucer] is an iconic part of Decatur High School… there was a strong feeling in the community that it should be left,” said Nahmias.

Dude agrees.

“It’s our thing.  It’s part of what makes us unique.” The saucer will be kept, however it will no longer be home to the library.

The saucer has been gutted and will be home to technology for students to use.

“I think it outlived its cycle for being our media center because we’ve outgrown it,” said Maloof. “The new media center really speaks to some of the needs that the old media center couldn’t fulfill.”

The saucer will be converted to a new career tech building.

 “There’s going to be lots of really cool modular furniture that can be moved so students can group together and use their electronics,” said assistant principal Susan Weber.

The new space will provide technology for students as well as a helpful learning space. Complete with a station of students ready to assist anyone with technology, similar to an Apple genius bar, the space will be used for students to collaborate and work.

“The space is going to be classroom space dedicated to career tech fields like engineering and graphic design,” Nahmias said.

 “It was a great ride,” said Riley, who worked in the saucer for 20 years. “It’s just been the most warm, wonderful place to be, even when it was freezing cold… They saved it from demolition… I have to accept that that’s good enough. ”

Although Riley is upset that the saucer will no longer be the media center, she knows that the space will be useful.

“It’s a tremendous workload you all have and you need a space where you can work,” she said.

Maloof agrees.

“I think City Schools of Decatur is doing a great job meeting the growth demands and also honoring and preserving what makes Decatur, Decatur,” said Maloof.

Not everyone is glad the school is undergoing renovations. The construction has bothered senior body president Kate Fowler all year. Fowler was looking forward to the privileges that come with being a senior.

“I had a car, everything was ready, [but the school said] oh, there are only 68 spots available [because of construction],” she said. Fowler has to leave lunch early to make it to class on time as well as readjust her commute to avoid “getting hit by something” from the construction.

“The biggest challenge for me is being happy in the circumstances we are in,” said Fowler. “When [my brother] was a senior he got all these privileges,” she said. “He got to eat outside, sometimes he could leave campus to get lunch and he had parking, but we don’t have any of that.”

Riley agrees that the construction is not the best for students.

“It’s all very nice, but the seniors have really been ripped off this year,” she said.

Nevertheless, she is glad the school is being renovated.

“I think it’s a great move forward for our career academy and I’ve been a big believer of that.”

Weber is excited about the construction. “I’m looking forward to some beautiful facilities. We’re going to have a brand new beautiful media center for everyone to enjoy. It’s going to be state-of-the-art, it’s going to have really cool furniture in it, it’s all going to be moveable, it’s going to [have] a lot of technology and a lot of places for students to gather and sit and collaborate,” she said. “That’s most exciting for me.”

Riley has learned to accept that the school is changing. “It’s not going to be the same, but I still believe it’s going to be great.”

Photos courtesy of Susan Riley and credit of Kheyal Roy-Meighoo and Jack Brock