December 13th, 2012
03:00 PM ET

270 students from 30 countries in 1 school

By Radina Gigova, CNN

Decatur, Georgia (CNN) - Most students are not exactly thrilled when it comes to school and homework but three international fifth-graders might be an exception to the rule.

Igey Muzeleya, 11, grew up in Tanzania. His family moved to the United States six years ago to escape the wave of violence.

Eleven-year-old Aung Zawl is from Myanmar, also known as Burma. He has been living in the U.S. for about two years.

Paria Foroughi, 10, was born in Iran. Her parents wanted better educational opportunities for their children and the family also immigrated to America.

Muzeleya, Zawl and Foroughi are students at the International Community School in Decatur, Georgia, and they rarely miss a day of school.

"I like the school, because it's a fun place to be, fun place to learn and it's really cool to be in the school with all your friends," Muzeleya said.

“I like all the classes,” Foroughi said. “They all teach you something interesting, something that I haven’t learned before.”

The charter school enrolls about 270 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The real challenge, though, is educating students from more than 30 countries, some of whom have never before attended school or don't speak English.

The school was designed to meet the needs of the growing refugee population in the nearby city of Clarkston, Georgia, and the larger DeKalb County. The area has become one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the state and in the country. It is home to immigrants and refugees from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe, who speak more than 60 different languages. The local government offers various programs and services, such as medical and housing assistance, which attract newcomers and help them transition to the new culture.

Some of the students who come to the International Community School must learn how to speak English. Many are survivors of war and often have to overcome trauma. In some cases, this is the first school they've ever attended. While some children need additional help or counseling, the goal is to avoid separating them from the rest of their American classmates.

"You see kids who don't even have the concept of school, they don't know what school is, and they come to ICS and in the space of a few weeks they become learners," said Laurent Ditmann, the school's principal. “This is not a school for refugee children any more than it’s a school for American kids."

Non-native speakers have to pass a rigorous English language program. In addition, bilingual teaching assistants work with the main teachers in every kindergarten and first grade classroom. Reading and math practice are also part of the daily schedule.

“If the kids see that you are invested in them, then they become invested in you, they become invested in what they do in class, because they realize that you care about them,” said Drew Whitelegg, a soccer coach and fifth-grade teacher.

The school receives state and federal funds but relies heavily on donations, grants and partnerships with community organizations. Parents are expected to complete several hours of volunteer work at the school or in their community, as part of the school's charter system.

"Because of our fiscal structure, we cannot offer salaries that are commensurate with work experience," Ditmann said. "A lot of my teachers make a lot less than the teachers in the regular school system, but that's what separates them from other professionals - they really want to work here."

As an International Baccalaureate school, the International Community School has programs and activities designed to promote intercultural understanding and expand the worldview of its students. Often children from countries in conflict or at war might be sitting next to each other in class, school officials said.

“There is something almost magical about the place," said Ditmann, whose parents were Holocaust survivors. "It’s a place of incredible joy."

Each year, the school celebrates its own United Nations Day, highlighting the school's vision of unity, peace and friendship.

“We march around holding our flags and wearing our traditional clothes from our country," said Foroughi, the Iranian student. "We recite poems, we do dances. Everyone’s friends."

"School is fun, sometimes may not be as fun, but if you keep going to school, you get smarter and you’ll be a better person," said Muzeleya, the student from Tanzania.

Foroughi wants to be a judge, Muzeleya wants to be a professional soccer player and Zawl wants to be an artist - dreams that school officials believe every child around the world should be able to pursue.

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Filed under: Charter schools • Elementary school • ESL
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. PushingBack

    This is a wonderful school. The company I worked for a few years ago donated a bunch of time, energy and supplies to spruce the place up. It's a small minded view that thinks only "our" children in the US deserve any opportunity.

    December 20, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  2. JOSE--USMC-0311

    I KNOW ONE THING, WE DO NOT HAVE JOBS TO CONTINUE ALLOWING MORE IMMIGRANTS IN..OUR COUNTRY IS OUT OF CONTROL..WHEN WILL OUR POLITICIANS PUT AMERICA-AMERICAN CITIZENS FIRST ???????
    WE HAVE 50 MILLION AMERICANS CITIZENS UNEMPLOYED IF YOU COUNT THE PART-TIME WORKERS WHO CAN'T GET A FULL-TIME JOB...WHY ARE WE ALLOWING MORE FOREIGNERS IN ?? BEYOND ME.

    December 18, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Johan S

      Because immigrants can create jobs and invent things that improve quality of life. Many of the startups in Silicon Valley were created by immigrants or first generation descendants of an immigrant. Examples: Apple, Google, YouTube, Paypal, eBay, Yahoo, Intel, nVidia. Also many Nobel prize winners for the US have been immigrants, for example Ahmed Zewail who won it for Chemistry in the 1990s (he invented a special kind of laser). But besides all that many of the kids in this article are refugees and would have been killed or starved to death .. and we do have capacity for them. We don't want to be like the innkeeper who told Jesus parents no more room in the inn, do we? Nobody in the US is in danger of starvation other than from deliberate abuse. Have some humanity. They may not be American but they are human brings, hopefully so are you.

      December 19, 2012 at 10:59 am |
      • PushingBack

        "Nobody in the US is in danger of starvation other than from deliberate abuse." – and perhaps we could use some collective weight loss as a country?

        December 20, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • CA Liberal

      Immigrants have always been the strength of the USA. This country has more people from around the world than any other country in the world. USA was founded by immigrants. If all the "foreigners" were sent home there wouldn't be anybody left but the Indians. Get over it.

      December 19, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • PushingBack

      You have a very narrow minded view on this topic. I sure hope it is really jobs you are concerned about and this does not stem from other fears. But as others have said in their replies, you cannot equate one person coming to the USA as simply one job lost. And there are many, yes many economic advantages to bringing these folks into the US. Even if they absorb a job, they are buying goods, services, homes and educations. Some are even bringing cash here from other places. It's far too dynamic of a situation than fits your narrow view.

      December 20, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  3. dsaiufy dgsfhjsd

    i dont understand it

    December 17, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  4. Elaine

    Shame on CNN and this school for having this information including the name and location of this school being put out for another nut case to do horrific damage as has been done today in Conn. Sure, this is a great thing in this school but lets protect the students there- as a parent and grandparent I feel this is a fundraiser story and not for the good of the innocents going to school there!

    December 14, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Marilyn

      The school takes their safety very seriously- locked doors, ids shown and mandatory sign ins for visitors.
      It is most definitely NOT for fund raising, but a sharing of the joy of diversity. It is so sad you could not see that.

      December 15, 2012 at 10:04 am |
      • JOSE--USMC-0311

        SCHOOLS THAT DO NOT HAVE ARMED SECURITY ?? ARE NOT SAFE...ANYONE CAN BREAK IN ANY SCHOOL, LIKE THE SHOOTER DID AT SANDY ...SCHOOLS HAVE TOO MANY BREAKABLE WINDOWS.. ALL ANYONE HAVE TO DO IS BREAK A WINDOW TO GET IN.

        December 18, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  5. OMG

    The southern people need to take vacation travel out of country once awhile, and please go get your passport. I moved here 7 years ago, most southern people are closed-minded.

    December 14, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • EP

      So true!

      December 18, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • Jorge

      Within their close-mindedness, many southerners have a manner of generous hospitality, or at least a polite civillity. You should have to deal with a lot of the northern boomer career transplants here trying to play the well-to-do-southerner, but keeping the Chicago or Philly or Detroit (among other places) jacka-s-s-edness about them and trying to play the native not-what-you-know-it's-who-you-know thing to the max. Worst of both worlds.

      December 19, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  6. Jessalyn

    It's important for children to be brought up knowing children from different backgrounds because they will see that out in the real world. My children went to a magnet elem. school in Raleigh, NC that had students from 58 different countries. The international festival held each year was a great learning experience for my children.

    December 14, 2012 at 5:39 am |