The smell of charred wood still wafts through the air in front of the Mother Goose building on the campus of the Paideia School in Druid Hills.
The structure, which was destroyed by fire on Friday, Oct. 3, was one of the school’s signature buildings. The Atlanta Fire Rescue Department suspects arson and is still investigating. No suspects have been named, but investigators are reportedly looking for two young males and two females between 15 and 18 years old.
There is a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any suspects.
“It gives you a somber feeling when you walk past the building and smell the burnt wood,” said Paideia junior Sara Imhotep, 16. “There are a lot of memories in that building. You spend so much time in there; it meant a lot. It’s part of the high school experience that (current) eighth graders aren’t going to get to experience.”
Hay bales on the front porch of the building were set on fire at about 7:15 p.m., said Capt. Bill May of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. No students were on campus when the fire began, said headmaster Paul Bianchi.
Once the bales were ignited, the flames entered the attic and swept through the entire building. The bales were set out on the lawn to display pumpkins for a pumpkin sale on Oct. 3, and were later that day moved to the porch under threat of rain.
The building will be replaced, but the process will take more than a year, said Bianchi. The school bought the building, which housed a business called The Mother Goose Nursery, in 1982. The sign was taken down and converted into high school classrooms, but the name stuck.
“There is a feeling of violation,” Bianchi said. “And it makes you realize the vulnerability of the children. We have children as young as 3 (on campus). It’s frightening to think that it happened.”
The reaction was similar with students, who commented on the smell of the burnt wood as they walked to classes last week.
“I was really shocked and didn’t believe it at first,” said sophomore Shahir Anwar, 16. “When I saw it (the next day) my first thought was ‘who would do such a thing.’”
Senior Jenna Kannel also was upset by the incident.
“It wouldn’t be as weird if it was an accident,” said Kannel, 17. “It sucks that it happened, but we should be celebrating that no one was hurt and that it wasn’t worse.”
The incident has brought the Paideia community closer together. Several students, parents and faculty spent the morning of Saturday, Oct. 4, cleaning up some of the debris, and the school had a large turnout for its annual barbecue square dance later that day.
“We’re bouncing back,” Bianchi said. “There’s a lot to do but even more to be grateful for. We’re working through the anger.”
The Mother Goose building housed four classrooms and an office for an administrator who also is the school’s athletic director. One teacher had taught in the building since it was bought in 1982. The others have been there each for nearly 20 years.
“They had a lot of things that were important to them professionally and personally in there,” Bianchi said. “Ninety-five percent of it is gone. It’s like if you live in a house for 15 to 20 years and all that stuff is gone.”
Bianchi said the school has received an outpouring of support both inside and outside the Paideia community. There have been about 250 e-mails from alums who had an emotional attachment to the teachers or the classrooms, Bianchi said. Also, a parent had gone to a nearby Staples to purchase school supplies to replace some of what was lost in the fire, and the store donated the items upon hearing the supplies were for the school.
“The community has been enormously supportive and heartening,” Bianchi said. “Dozens of Atlanta area schools have called asking what they can do to help.”