Not everyone can do it. The geography lesson is a riot of pens, plastic knives, and sawed-apart oranges, as sixth graders struggle to turn fruit into globes.
International Community School (ICS) teaching assistant Htwe Htwe sweeps across the room and leans over Tuesday Paw, who's looking quizzically at her orange. With a few words in her native Burmese she explains the assignment to the ponytailed girl. Tuesday nods, picks up a ballpoint, and delicately outlines the continents. When she's done, she shows the orange to Ms. Htwe.
"OK," says Htwe in English, "cut it off." Tuesday, looking uncertain, checks with a few Burmese words.
"Uh huh!" Htwe grins, and slaps the girl's leg in confirmation. Tuesday beams and carves gently down the prime meridian, peeling her map back. In English, Htwe urges her to show teacher Kimimila Locke.
"Tuesday, that's amazing," says Ms. Locke, holding up the peel. "Everyone, look at Tuesday's."
Last year, this could not have happened. Htwe, the only Burmese staff member at the Georgia charter school for refugee and American-born students, was working with kindergartners. Tuesday, whose family had just arrived in Atlanta knowing no English, struggled at the school's other campus, only to be held back in sixth grade.This fall, with Htwe's support, Tuesday's work - even her English writing - has improved so much, it's better than that of some US-born classmates, says Early Intervention Program teacher Mary Ellen Sheehan, "and probably that's because of Htwe."Letter vs. spirit of qualified'
But not just Htwe. ICS staff from Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Bosnia, France, Britain, Cuba, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, and elsewhere make this kind of crucial connection every day, one student at a time, in up to 40 languages.
This year, their jobs are on the line as the seven-year-old school struggles with county and state overseers over the school's charter. At issue, a controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) demand that has confounded much of the nation: All public school teachers and assistants must be "highly qualified." NCLB left it to states to decide what that means, and for charters, Georgia left it mostly to the schools. In previous years, ICS staff were considered "highly qualified" because of training they get to teach the demanding International Baccalaureate curriculum.
Not anymore. Facing a budget crisis, a growing body of experience with charter schools, and NCLB deadlines, both county and state are toughening their requirements. "There are deficiencies in your petition," the DeKalb County charter review board told ICS this fall. It demanded that, by next summer, all ICS teachers be state certified, and all paraprofessionals like Htwe pass a rigorous exam or complete two years of college.
ICS's new principal, Laurent Ditmann, feared for its survival. Though his educators have taught around the world and helped integrate hundreds of refugee children like Congolese third-grader Bill Clinton Hadam into American life, only half of ICS teachers have met Georgia's certification requirements, and no assistants have state credentials.Dr. Ditmann - along with ICS mom Marney Mayo, a tireless advocate for charter schools who, in her signature tie-dye, is a vocal presence at county board meetings and the state legislature - argued with the county's demand. International staff make ICS what it is, they insisted - but members need time to get credentialed. Some of their educational records are irretrievable from war-torn homelands. Others hold credentials that satisfied countries around the globe, but count for nothing in Georgia. Still others are working toward English fluency and preparing to take qualification exams.Meanwhile, Ditmann promised staff he'd fight to keep them. But the future for Htwe and her colleagues hinges on a budget crisis, changing charter laws, and uncertainty about the interpretation and future of No Child Left Behind.
Htwe's been sick with worry about this, struggling to perfect her English and to persuade the local community college to recognize her Rangoon University math degree - or at least her high school diploma.
"I am scared," she says. "I love to teach. I'm also still learning, step by step. [But] International Community School means we're from different countries - and we need those people, right?"Htwe's American life
Htwe's life has always revolved around school. As a high school student in Burma, she studied with a private tutor. Next door lived a slim, earnest, university student named Myo Naing. Their families were strict Muslims, so they courted through letters and chaperoned visits in Htwe's living room. In 1988, they married. Htwe was halfway through college; Mr. Naing had just finished degrees in marine engineering and history.
Three months later, the nation was convulsed by pro-democracy protests, ending in a bloody coup by the military junta that still holds power. Naing, a student organizer, was imprisoned for three months; many friends were killed. On his release, the family paid $5,000 to smuggle him to Thailand. Htwe was pregnant with the couple's first son.
In the next 12 years she completed her degree and worked as a day-care provider and a private math and Burmese tutor. Naing worked on ships in Thailand and Singapore, sending money and sneaking home every few years for short, perilous visits. In 2000, relatives told him it was safe to return for good. But police quickly found him. Naing fled again, this time to asylum in the US.
In 2003, Htwe and her three children boarded a plane for a supposed shopping trip to Thailand. Their stewardess wondered aloud why Htwe cried so hard before takeoff. Only Htwe and her 12-year-old son knew: They were bound for America and faced imprisonment or worse if discovered.
They made it: to Atlanta and an apartment complex that bordered ICS, where Naing enrolled their younger son.
Her first year in America, Htwe suffered a miscarriage. Naing was working two low-wage jobs; home alone for the first time in her life, Htwe became depressed. ICS staff and parents realized it and started visiting her. They helped Naing find a better-paying job, drove the couple's young daughter to preschool, and encouraged Htwe to volunteer at ICS. Soon, she was working there.
"So God bless us because of ICS, that people, you know?" says Htwe. "It's like my home. That's why I don't want to hear quit,' fire.' ''
In time, the family bought a house near ICS's fifth- and sixth-grade campus. They painted it vibrant colors, grew gourds out back by the fish pond, and opened their doors to the community. Their children - daughter Ei, now 9, and sons Hein, 12, and Naing, 18 - have grown into warm, insightful kids who blend fasting for Ramadan with losing themselves in Harry Potter and hip-hop dance.
Four more years?
Because half of ICS's 400 students come from immigrant and refugee backgrounds, educators like Htwe, who've shared their experiences of war trauma and dislocation, are a particular asset.
"I think they are a sine qua non," founder Bill Moon says of refugee assistants. "They know the underlying truth of what we're doing. They embody the mission of the school."
In years past, DeKalb County saw it that way too. Now, like school districts across the nation, it's cash-strapped and under strain. This fall, the county has frozen hiring, cut busing, offered a retirement buyout, and announced plans to lay off 200 employees. By May, it's expected to lose $10.5 million in state funding. It's looking hard at charters and other "special projects."
Charters began in the early 1990s as an alternative to failing public schools. The idea was a trade-off: freedom to innovate and exemption from strictures like class size caps and salary scales in exchange for measurable student growth. In Georgia, where they've taken off, each charter is a three-party legal contract between school, county, and state. All must agree on hundreds of pages of individually tailored school policies.
Earlier this month, ICS passed the first hurdle in the charter renewal process when the DeKalb school board unanimously passed its renewal petition. The county gave ICS four years to get teachers and assistants fully credentialed - after a state official, interpreting NCLB and Georgia charter law, assured DeKalb that this would not cost it federal funding.
Besides that assurance, says DeKalb charter head Nicole Knighten, it was a "concerted lobbying effort" by Ms. Mayo - who is not shy about calling officials on weekends - that persuaded her committee to make an exception for ICS.
Now, the state will review the ICS charter for compliance with state law, and vote on it in March.
Htwe still worries that she won't be able to talk local authorities into recognizing her Burmese degree. But she'd love to take classes, she says. That's why she asked to work with sixth-graders this year: for the challenge.
"I'm still learning. I have a mistake, teach me, I'm not proud," she says. "I want to learn."