Refugees in suburbia: A school without a building

When Mary asked me: "Just how many facilities options have you looked at over the years?" and I started trying to describe all of them, I felt embarrassed and rather stupid. Just how does one make any sense of this for a 1,200 word article?

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    Hallway as office: ICS teachers, parents, and administrators bump through the area that serves as front office, kitchen, mail room, copy center, and nurse's office for the school. A search is ongoing for adequate space.
    Mary Wiltenburg
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[Today's blog is by ICS mom Marney Mayo, an ICS parent and charter school advocate.]

When Mary asked me: "Just how many facilities options have you looked at over the years?" and I started trying to describe all of them, I felt embarrassed and rather stupid. Just how does one make any sense of this for a 1,200 word article?

There were the years we spent getting into and outgrowing our present church spaces, the time spent looking at what might be for sale, the time spent not even trying, and that spent hoping that having a community that wanted us would be enough. It is an unfinished and unsatisfying narrative.

I have realized, after pondering the question, that emotionally it mirrors the narrative of the "refugee" experience. In many ways, an independently conceived and run charter school such as ICS is born into a no man's land between our notions of what "public" and "private" schools are believed to be. We have no legal right to a publicly funded building. Yet we are a public school that is in many ways more aligned than the typical neighborhood school with the ideal of the "common school", where people of all backgrounds would receive an education together and learn from one another in order to prepare them to function in a democratic society. This ideal inspired the creation of a publicly funded educational system in the first place.

So, as with a refugee camp, at first it felt wonderful just to have a safe place to exist, and we are forever in debt to the churches that provided that to us by renting to us. Over time though, issues of overcrowding, personal space, and toilets take their toll on morale. And where and how you go about a search for your home says a lot about your own sense of identity, self-worth, and place in the world.

While simultaneously dealing with issues of survival and growth, at first I thought that looking for a permanent facility meant looking for a building. I quickly realized that it was not about where a building was or might be built. Those are everywhere. It was like looking at the gumball machine and knowing you don't have the quarter you need for the gumball. It was about resources. But then the question quickly became: Who has the capacity and feels the sense of responsibility necessary to collectively supply this need? It is about relationships.

So I started to pay more attention to the quality of our relationships with those institutions and individuals that I believe have a moral, if not legal, shared identity and mission with ICS. What should I do to inspire connection and mutual respect? I must presume goodwill and offer respect. Over time, our local school district, the state department of education and legislature, the neighborhoods that surround us, various foundations and a huge number of individuals, including many readers of these articles, have all shown a desire to aid us - within the constraints of politics, policy, and capacity that they each have.

In our collective search for a home, each of us at ICS must look like that baby bird from the Dr. Seuss book - "Are You My Mother?" - wandering in a different direction according to where and what we think our mother is. I believe that ICS will find a home of its own, and a more focused sense of identity when we in the ICS community realize that we are grown up now. When the "we" is large enough, our fate will no longer rest with someone out there, but within a much larger nest of shared community identity with the DeKalb County School District, public education generally, and all the other institutions and individuals who view our mission and behavior as worthy of respect, compassion, and resources.

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