University Volunteers Stimulate International Public School

It's 4:30 p.m. and the second grade classroom at the International Community School (ICS) in Avondale is bustling. At a time when many elementary schools have already sent students home, the public charter school is brimming with students and volunteers in its after-school program. Unique among Atlanta elementary schools, ICS brings together children of refugees and immigrants with American-born students to provide an internationally based education. And although it's publicly funded, the school relies heavily on the generosity of volunteers. In any given week approximately 50 volunteers from Georgia Tech, Emory and other Atlanta universities and schools help students finish homework, play educational games and burn off steam as part of ICS' after school program.

After finishing with their homework, many of the students turn to counting cards. The game is "21." Volunteer Sheila Schulte points to her ace.
"I have one," she said to second-grader Adia Reid , from Jamaica.
Schulte draws an eight.
"So how many is that?" she asked.
"Nine," answered Reid.

Games like this help the students develop the ability to do mental arithmetic, said Schulte, whose day job is associate director for International Student and Scholar Services at Georgia Tech. She helped get the after-school program off the ground by bringing 14 international students and international affairs majors from Georgia Tech to supplement the school's staff on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Since then, the International Community School has attracted students and faculty from Emory University, Georgia State University and the Atlanta International School.

"I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for our international students to see what the U.S. educational system is like outside of higher education," said Schulte. "It's a great way for me to get to know our students better. It's very rewarding to get to know a group of students on a personal level and to watch their interaction with each other."

Principal and co-founder Bill Moon said the school has benefited from the work of more than 300 volunteers since its inception in August 2002.

"Every piece of furniture you see in this room has been donated," he said referring to his office. Before opening, volunteers carpeted the school and painted the walls. They donated fire alarms, security cameras and computers. Home Depot even donated $40,000 in new playground equipment, installation included. Volunteers help keep the school running, said Moon.

With 180 students this year and a 95 percent reenrollment rate, the school has had a successful start. Adding a grade each year, the school teaches children from kindergarten through third grade. At first glance it looks just like any other school, with alphabet posters and murals on the walls. But here and there lie touches that reveal the special history of many of the refugees. A mural drawn by the kids depicts scenes of war and killing alongside pictures of friendship with captions such as "Children must not be used as cheap labor or soldiers. Children have the right to play. Children have the right to protection from cruelty, neglect and injustice."

Georgia Tech student volunteer Nitika Raj from Kuwait was one of the first volunteers in the program. "It takes time for them to trust you," she said. Many of them are wary of new people, possibly because of what some of them have been through. But no matter what they've experienced in the past, once they're on the playground they all laugh the same, run the same and even tease each other.

Back in the classroom, Georgia Tech student volunteer Mohamed Kone from the Ivory Coast, helps third-grader Hein Paing finish his math homework.

"I don't feel right when I'm not volunteering," explained Kone.

Paing is one of the school's success stories. When he moved to Atlanta last year from Burma he spoke no English. Now in addition to studying English in school he gets to study other languages and cultures as part of the after-school program's Heritage Language Program. Led by the school's staff and supplemented by volunteers and parents, the program gives the students a chance to learn about a new culture and language every month. This year, they've studied Arabic, Bosnian, Vietnamese, Kurdish and Jamaican-Creole.

It's not only the kids that are learning, said Schulte. "It helps our international students figure out American culture," she said. Seeing up close how an American school works and watching the interaction between the American children and the immigrant children teaches them a lot about how Americans deal with intercultural differences.

That interaction is what the school is all about, said Moon. "We cannot have a school just for refugee kids. It wouldn't work. Having the local communities' involvement is essential."

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