Chartering New Territory

Decatur's multicultural charter school fills a niche - and struggles to expand

The school lunchroom is so quiet you can hear plastic forks raking across Styrofoam as the students scoop up cold mac and cheese. A Somalian teacher wearing a traditional Islamic robe, which many students know by its Arabic name, jilbab, paces around the cafeteria of kindergartners - a place that's more like a Honey I Shrunk the Kids version of a U.N. conference.

The teacher puts on a prison warden's gaze and enforces a code of cafeteria silence. She nears a girl with big brown eyes and light brown skin, too dark to be Bosnian but not quite dark enough to be Liberian (perhaps she's Iraqi, or maybe Cuban). The girl flashes an ear-to-ear grin. The teacher cracks; she smiles.

Today, like every day, the children at the International Community School in Decatur are supposed to keep quiet during the last 15 minutes of lunch; otherwise, they'll talk so much they'll forget to eat. Sometimes they talk about their differences, such as why some of them (35 percent of the students and 20 percent of the staff) aren't allowed to eat lunch in November because of Ramadan. Whatever the subject, the children talk, a lot, in a collective 46 languages, and talking is exactly what the multicultural charter school wants from its 230 students. Most of the time, anyway.

"Other schools can get locked into the teacher as master model, where the students are quiet while the teacher opens up their heads and pours in the knowledge," Principal Bill Moon explains. "We know that isn't the most effective way for children to learn. We want students to learn from other students."

Several years ago, Moon, then a private school principal, recognized a problem in DeKalb County public education. Close to 22,000 refugees live in DeKalb, the highest refugee concentration in a single East Coast county. Yet most refugee children attended regular, public schools, where they took ESL (English as a Second Language) classes and typically remained isolated from American-born students.

So in 2002, Moon and five fellow educators created a start-up charter school to follow what's called the mosaic model of assimilation, a two-way street where immigrants learn to function in American culture while retaining a good bit of their own. To facilitate that, International Community School maintains a 50-50 American-to-immigrant mix.

The equation seems to work: The charter school's students have scored in the top third of DeKalb schools on state standardized tests, and there's a waiting list for both American and foreign-born students. Last year, 100 prospective students lost out on a lottery to attend International.

For the past 15 years, educators and parents have been steering more and more students to charter schools - with mixed results - after finding that traditional public schools have failed them. Although charter schools are public, they're smaller and self-administered, offering parents and teachers more involvement when it comes to curriculum, staffing, and almost everything else. The problem is, charter schools' test scores don't always show that students are doing any better than in traditional public schools.

Charter school advocates say the schools would improve if they were funded as well as their traditional counterparts. Critics say the money spent on charter schools instead should be spent to improve the traditional, ailing public school system.

Though International Community School doesn't suffer the test score woes of some charter schools, it does have funding needs. The school's founders believed that Georgia's 40 or so charter schools weren't getting all the funding allocated under the state Charter School Act of 1998. They felt that clarifying the gray areas of the act could increase funding, at least at International, by 10 percent.

That 10 percent would go a long way in expanding the school. Right now, International stops at fourth grade, meaning its students must leave to attend another elementary school and then, a year later, leave for middle school. That's three schools in as many years.

For International, the additional funding would help build stability for its student body by adding another grade. For many students and faculty, stability is a treasured thing.

One student, 6-year-old Yuri, lived in a Kazakhstani orphanage and suffered from constant ear infections that impaired his hearing - until Greg Zaurus, mayor of Pine Lake, spent a year learning Russian and adopted the boy. Zaurus says he's seen tremendous intellectual and social growth from his son after just four months at International.

Two years ago, a kindergartner named Teresa Mayo, who is American-born, met an Afghan girl at International named Fatema. At the time, Fatema didn't know English, and Teresa helped coach her. They're now best friends.

In 1997, Come Mahabakomeye was throwing a party for his daughter's baptism in his native Burundi village when a co-worker came bursting through the door. In 30 minutes, the murderous Tutsi military would be at his house. The informant, a Tutsi herself, had come to like the bubbly Hutu and had raced ahead of the military to warn him. He hid in the nearby forest while the military searched for him. Mahabakomeye says he'd been targeted because a Tutsi in another department of his bank wanted his job.

With a guide, Mahabakomeye walked the 90 kilometers to the Tanzanian border on back roads and through forests. After reaching a Tanzanian refugee camp, he was reunited with his family and applied for refugee status in the U.S.

At first, Mahabakomeye's adjustment to America wasn't easy. He was fired as a nighttime security guard because MARTA didn't run as late as his shift did.

But after Principal Moon heard about Mahabakomeye's struggles through a mutual friend and discovered he had worked for five banks in Burundi, Moon found the man more than qualified to be the International Community School's accountant.

Now Mahabakomeye, like Moon, is intimately familiar with how crucial it is that the school get additional funding.

Moon is sitting in his office with a parent when the news arrives about Senate Bill 35, the legislation that would give more funding to the state's charter schools. But he's distracted. He's trying to describe how important his school truly is. There are the numbers: 65 percent of the students qualify for discounts on books and lunches, while the rest come from middle- to upper-class homes; 90 percent of third graders passed the state's CRCT reading test, and 97 percent passed the math test - an impressive achievement considering many students enter the school not knowing English.

But the numbers matter less to Moon than the fact that he believes his school has much to offer beyond the fourth grade.

On that day, April 8, the last day the Legislature is in session, Moon finally learns that SB 35 has passed. He says he's now confident that International Community School will add a fifth grade in the next school year.

"Then all we need to do is add sixth, seventh, and eighth," he says. "And I can retire."