02:13 - Source: CNN
School focuses on peace lessons

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.