Unafraid to talk about faith, a charter school thrives

Based in a public charter school for refugees and American-born students, a reporter looks back on year of progress

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    Bill Clinton Hadam and some of his teaching team: from left, Gianna Amsberry, Linda Dorage, David Bellamy, Naza Orlovic,
    Amille Hobbs, Rebecca Lutz, Dawn Jones.
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On a sunny afternoon last October, Hibo Hassan, an assistant teacher at the International Community School did a dangerous thing. She painted a little girl's hand.

It was Eid ul-Fitr, the Muslim celebration that marks the end of the month-long Ramadan fast. Hibo came to school with gorgeous henna designs on her hands. Henna, a burgundy dye, has been used for skin and hair dying across multiple continents since the late Bronze Age. Henna painting isn't particularly associated with Islam, but it's a celebratory art in many cultures. Like Hibo herself as a girl growing up in Somalia, her students were enchanted by the intricate patterns and vines. They begged her to make designs on their hands too.

Looking back over the past year at the charter school outside Atlanta, this moment says a lot about the kind of community ICS is and aspires to be. As a new school year starts this week and our series draws to a close, the Obama administration is prodding America into a new era of charter schooling. This a story of what moral and cultural education can look like in a charter school community that's not afraid to talk about faith.

HIBO DEFIES LABELS. The young Ethiopian-Somali woman's sense of style is audacious. Her shock of often-vertical, sometimes-orange curls is astonishing. She's sensitive, hilarious, and unafraid to speak her mind: her front-office rants are masterpieces of storytelling, outrage, and vocal projection. And Hibo's practice of Islam is one that would feel familiar to young people of many faiths."Why is he going to assume that just because I'm Muslim I don't drink beer?" she fumed one day. A server carding her in a restaurant the night before had expressed shock, since officially, Islam forbids drinking. "That makes me mad. I said, Don't put that on me without even asking me. What, all Muslims are alike?' "Like many ICS teachers and staff, Hibo is engaged with her students in a way that goes way beyond the classroom. She visits them at home, takes them out for ice cream, and goes to their soccer games. She babysits for many students. After school, little girls line up for her to braid their hair in cornrows. Their henna request seemed of a piece with all this. Hibo didn't think anything of it. One day, she brought in supplies, and during the school's extended-day program, painted temporary henna designs on five or six first- and second-graders' hands.During an interview later that evening ICS principal Laurent Ditmann's phone rang. The caller was speaking loudly enough to be heard across the desk. The father of one of the little girls who had come home with "some kind of markers and stuff" on her hands, he was struggling to contain his fury. He wasn't shouting, but he was close.

"Right now, I am hot," he said, with a Southern inflection. "Nobody should ever mark somebody's child. That stuff is people's religion and stuff."

A YEAR AGO, this Georgia public school was unmistakably Christian. ICS staff had a comfort level uncommon in a US public school with talking about education in religious language.

Not illegally so; nobody was proselytizing. As its name suggests, ICS is an inclusive global cross-section of students, staff, and families - and that hyperdiversity extends to faith. Some 30 to 40 percent of students and 15 percent of staff are Muslim, and that and other traditions are celebrated in, rather than shut out of, the charter school's culture.

In its seven-year history, ICS has become one of relatively few public schools in the nation where staff members can be open with students about their faiths. It's a hard balance to strike, teaching about a range of traditions, amid a huge variety of them, in a public school, renting its space from two churches. Most ICS teachers manage this extremely deftly.Still, until last fall, the school was Christian in an important way. Back then, the words school leaders used most to talk about their school included: miracle, theologian, family, spiritual growth, power of attraction, transformation, humbly, faith tradition, "Beloved Community." Some parents felt this was a vital part of what made ICS so welcoming to newcomers. Others tolerated it for the sake of a school they loved. Still others were put off by it and sent their kids elsewhere. Today, the words more commonly used in ICS meetings include: strategic plan, academic excellence, diversity, model, feasibility study, pragmatic, intentional, balance, environment, community. What happened in between forms the backdrop to the year when third grader Bill Clinton Hadam stopped weeping in class, and his little brother Igey learned to read.ICS'S FOUNDERS WERE LARGELY CHRISTIANS, in the best sense of that word: the "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave [me] drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me" sense. The dozen or so members of the "discernment group" who first envisioned the school for affluent suburban kids, poor Georgia-born kids, and refugee kids from conflict zones across the globe, were almost all religious. Of the two who remained most active at the school this past year, Patty Caraher is a Dominican nun, and Bill Moon is a former seminarian.

These people live their faiths. They spent four years talking about ICS before it opened. Making sure everyone felt heard in the process was as important to them as whether a school emerged. Their sources of inspiration were often theological: the sermons of 13th-century mystic Meister Eckhart; the scholarship of Emory University professor emeritus M. Thomas Thangaraj; and above all, the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his dream of the creation of a "Beloved Community."

A year and a half ago, almost no sentence passed school leaders' lips that did not include this phrase. It was hard to define; one founder confessed she had never known what it meant. Dr. King had written that the aim of his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Montgomery bus boycott was "to foster and create the beloved community' in America where brotherhood is a reality." But how this vision should apply to an elementary school was not always clear.

Still, the phrase had the power of an incantation. People said it reverently, or ironically, but they always said it. It was a spiritual yardstick held up to tough interactions. People who signed on with the school were understood to be trying to build it.

The phrase "Beloved Community" owes its pervasiveness at ICS particularly to one founder, beloved in her own right: Patty Caraher. The spry, septuagenarian nun, known to all as Sister Patty, is one of those radically loving and forgiving individuals who stand as examples of humanity at its best. Four decades ago, when she taught in all-black schools in Mobile, Ala., Patty protested and went to jail with her students. Many of them still remember her vividly. Patty "was God's example of a white person that cared for and loved me," one former student commented earlier this year. "It was my first example."

At ICS, Patty led family outreach efforts and organized the school's teaching assistants, mostly refugees and young volunteers. She also helped write the school's vision statement: "We seek to build and nurture the Beloved Community espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." Old enough to have heard King's speeches on the radio, she talked about him as a friend, and discussed his Beloved Community with the authority of someone who had fought with him.

This year, when she felt that vision was under attack, she fought for it too.

ENTER THE AGNOSTIC JEW. Actually, ICS principal Laurent Ditmann, who this week begins his second year as head of the school, entered the scene three years ago as an assistant to then-principal Bill Moon. Laurent was on his fourth career, having been a French professor, watch salesman, and business consultant before landing at the elementary school.

Laurent is one of those prodigiously smart folks whose social wisdom is catching up to his intellect. He loves ICS, and feels fiercely loyal to its students - in part because his story resembles some of theirs. His parents survived the Nazi Holocaust and started life after the war as refugees in Paris. Like many people touched by atrocities, Laurent wanted nothing to do with any god that would allow such things to happen. He was impatient on his students' behalf, particularly with Bill's and other staff members' talk about spirituality, which he felt was standing in the way of practical changes needed to insure the school's survival.

"I don't look at [community] as something spiritual, I look at it as the result of what's been done," Laurent said as he began his new job. "To me, community is activity."

So he got busy. He buzzed into his new office with timeframes, consultants, and an annual fundraising goal $150,000 more ambitious than any previous year's. Longtime school supporters worried he would kill the spirit of the place. Laurent countered that, under new state guidelines, ICS could not afford to rely on goodwill or "miracles" - nor could it camp out in scattered church buildings indefinitely. For its spirit to survive long-term, he said, the school needed a facility of its own, a better-defined development plan, and policies and procedures that would make it less vulnerable in uncertain political and economic times.

In his haste to get ICS these things, Laurent ran afoul of a symbolic school tradition: the reflection. This was a solemn moment at the start of every meeting, when a participant offered something like a prayer. Often it was a poem, an anecdote about a student, or a quote from Mohandas Gandhi or Pete Seeger or the Dalai Lama. One extended reading from "Chicken Soup for the Teacher's Soul" left several staff members in tears.

Laurent could not get reflections right. At times he made light of the tradition, which lost him points with those who found it moving. At others, he made sincere attempts, drawing readings from his own sources of inspiration. But this was not foolproof either.

Besides collecting fountain pens and pocket watches - and his and his wife's newest hobby, couples tap-dancing - Laurent's chief extracurricular obsession is with military history. His language is laced with battle metaphors. When he read reflections in meetings, they were often the thoughts of great military men. While such quotes lent a heroic air to the cork board in his office, they tended to fall flat in staff meetings - especially among English-learners who did not grasp what a long account of the D-Day invasion might have to do with the school's need for a building.

Still, Laurent soldiered on. He hired a consultant to interview staff, parents, and school supporters, and draw up a five-year strategic plan for ICS. In February, when a draft debuted before staff and parents, the school's old vision statement was subtly changed. It now read: "We have historically sought to build and nurture the Beloved Community akin to that promoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr."

The battle for the school's soul was on.

THERE WAS ALWAYS A TENSION in a public school like ICS having religious underpinnings. Founders tried to gloss over it by talking about a spiritual approach to education that treated every child as unique. That was, and is, true at ICS: children are loved, celebrated, and treated as whole individuals in a way that American parents clamor for and refugee parents trust. This year, the school, which admits by lottery, received more than 350 applications for fewer than 100 slots.

But it wasn't that simple. This past fall, when the school's charter came up for county review, readers were struck by the sweetheart deal the school had with the two Christian churches from which it rents space. They worried this might signal a subtle quid pro quo. As principal, Bill had led several services at the school's main church home as a kind of thank you. The charter committee had no tolerance for such apparent cosiness. Laurent and the school's lawyer had to insist in ICS's new charter that the churches' assistance would "not foster excessive government entanglement with religion; has not coerced students to accept or participate in a religious activity in any way; and may not have the purpose or effect of endorsing religion."

Historically, to address concerns about such "entanglement," school founders pointed to the large numbers of Muslim students and staff at ICS. This was by no means a given in the school's first years, despite large numbers of Somali and Bosnian refugees arriving in metro Atlanta. Some parents wrote the place off on the basis of the church buildings it rented. Only a great outreach effort by Muslim staff persuaded many refugee parents that ICS was not a place that would try to convert their children.

It isn't. If anything, the school is a place where many refugee students and parents first encounter non-missionary Christians, and many American kids and adults see mainstream Islam in action for the first time. Several parents raised in Western Christian traditions talk approvingly about their children fasting for Ramadan with Muslim friends and teachers (they never manage to hold out the whole month, but neither do most of ICS's Muslim kids). In fact, independent of one another, two of the school's US-born staff members recently converted to Islam.

Not that that's the school's goal either. But it speaks to a place where it has long been understood that people can come to the same core values from different theological perspectives. It helps to foster a community in which nobody thinks twice about a third of the school's cheerleaders wearing long skirts and the hijab.

And it aligns ICS with the quietly radical mission statement of the International Baccalaureate program it follows: "to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people ... who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right."

WHEN ICS FOUNDERS TALKED about the "Beloved Community," they were borrowing from Dr. King an originally Christian concept - one introduced by American metaphysicist Josiah Royce, who saw the church's primary role as modeling this ideal. Laurent felt this was problematic in a multifaith environment, and some parents and staff agreed. He was behind the "akin to" change in the vision statement, and in the weeks of strategic plan revisions that followed, he argued that leaning too heavily on a single faith tradition was inappropriate in a pluralistic school like ICS. Surely, he said, there must be other words - unity, diversity, respect - that would better convey what the school was after.This did not sit well with founders, and some longtime community members, who felt the soul of the school - the spirit that made it unique, that feeling new visitors got when they visited the campus for the first time, which was hard to put into words, but kept them coming back in droves to volunteer - was in jeopardy. Sister Patty made the most heartfelt case. In an e-mail to parents and staff, she argued: "MLK's dream of the Beloved Community is not a soft feeling, a fuzzy dream. It's a strong counter-cultural value of respect, care, dignity for all no matter the religion, culture, traditions. In a real sense it's a subversive dream because it flies in the face of competition and individualism of the dominant society.... It's a spiritual goal of oneness. It's a lifelong pursuit."

"We could put in our vision statement something about unity in diversity, respect for all," she continued. "These are all acceptable words right now. They are part of creating the Beloved Community but they don't convey the radical vision that MLK lived and died for. The kind of educational excellence that we are working toward with our dear ICS children will only be reached if we also embrace the Beloved Community. They go hand in hand."

When the strategic planning committee had weighed community input, the plan went to the board. The tortured language of the school's vision statement, approved in March, reflects the terms of the peace: "We have historically sought and will continue to seek building and nurturing community akin to the Beloved Community promoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the most diverse and open-minded way."

At the end of the year, with fond farewells and not a little exhaustion, the remaining founders retired from ICS. Bill and his wife Mary, who had been ICS receptionist, left their school family and struck off across the country to visit their six children and an army of grandchildren.

Patty, though, couldn't bear to retire completely. Though she's cut back her hours, Wednesday mornings still find her sorting food for the hungry families and meeting with teaching assistants from around the world: working to realize that subversive dream.LAST FALL, AS LAURENT SAT ON THE PHONE with the father angry about the henna on his daughter's hand, there were rough months ahead for the rookie principal. His criticisms and changes would soon alienate the school's old guard. His firing of ICS's development director would lose him funders.He would overhaul report cards to make them easier for parents with limited English to understand - but send them out months late. He would struggle with insomnia and panic attacks, and fall short of his fundraising goal. He would lose his cool. As he finished the year, Laurent would quote the Korean War movie "Hearbreak Ridge": "[I]f this hill doesn't kill us it'll surely break our hearts."

"That's how I feel about this place," he would say in May. "s been as much as I could take."

But there were many triumphs ahead, too. The school's charter would be approved for the next five years. With a restructured leadership team and the help of two excellent assistant principals, Laurent would begin to run the school, as he put it, less like a church and more like a business. Teachers would get raises, more uniform contracts, a salary scale, a chain of command, and regular professional development.

After a big push in math instruction, ICS would overcome its previous year's failure and meet its test score requirements under No Child Left Behind. With a new development team in place, and its board focused on good governance and responsible budgeting, the school would end the year on a surer footing procedurally and financially. By the coming fall, ICS would have a feasibility study done on a prospective new school site and a parent-teacher organization up and running for the first time in the school's seven-year history.

That October day, as he sat on the phone, the new principal was still learning what kind of leader he would be.

"My wife is not happy either," the father was saying. "Right now I'm very calm compared to what I used to be."

In a glimpse of what his best moments as principal would look like, Laurent said, respectfully: "I understand what you're saying, and I will address it."

But the father was not done being angry. He said his wife had calmed him down considerably before he called, "because I love this school, and they're learning so much about other cultures and stuff." He and his wife valued that for their daughter, the father said, "but you don't put your culture on my daughter's body."

"You're right," said Laurent.

The father seemed a little startled. "Well," he said, "maybe I ..."

"No," Laurent insisted, "you're right. It's that simple. Nobody should mark on your child without your permission. I will make sure it doesn't happen again."

The father was speaking gently now. Across a desk, a phone line, a cultural and religious divide, his voice cracked with love for his daughter. It was the voice of someone who wants a different educational future for his child than the one he had himself. His protectiveness, and some raw discomfort with Islam, were bound up together in a larger fear of a world that would continue to mark his daughter, as it marks us all, in ways not even a loving father can control.

Maybe, he told Laurent, there was no need to punish the staff member who'd painted his daughter's hand. Maybe there was a way to just chat quietly with her and explain the need to ask permission before doing something like that. Laurent agreed that this would be best. Sounding almost apologetic, the father said the person probably hadn't meant to do anything wrong. Laurent said he suspected not, and he would handle it in a sensitive way.

He did. Even when a second family threatened to pull their daughters out of the school because of the henna, Laurent didn't punish Hibo. He met with the parents, and she met with them, and everyone talked about the potential for allergic reactions, the history of henna art and its prevalence throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, and the need to ask parental permission in such cases. Her boss supported Hibo, while warning her always to err on the side of caution when a child's body was concerned.

"He handled it like a pro, actually," Hibo says.

WHEN HIBO FIRST LEARNED that the father had called about the henna, she felt terrible. The man's daughter had been her student the year before, and Hibo loved her and her parents. It had seemed like such an innocent gift she'd tried to give the little girls. There were no religious overtones for her, but she could see how it might have looked that way to someone unfamiliar with the tradition.

Hibo sought the family out to apologize. They told her they felt bad too, and they had never meant anything against Islam - they just wanted to be asked about things like that. Hibo told them she took full responsibility, and apologized again. But they had already forgiven her. They still call her to babysit.

On the phone, Laurent thanked the father for calling. "We will make mistakes," he said, "We're not perfect, and we will screw up." The school relied on parents to tell them when they did, Laurent said, and the dad had done just the right thing by calling him.

Then they chatted about the man's daughter. Laurent knew her. "She's a wonderful kid," he said.

Her father now sounded as close to tears as he had been to shouting. "I appreciate it," he told the principal. Nobody is perfect, he said, and "I love you and the school and what you're doing there. It's a wonderful school."

As its founders would say: Amen.

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