Several weather-beaten trailers sit tucked away behind the Avondale Pattillo United Methodist Church. At first glance, they look like nothing more than places to hold Sunday school or the occasional meeting.
However, during the week those trailers are filled with the 300 students who attend The International Community School (ICS) in Avondale Estates.
The school opened in 2002 with approximately 120 students and 25 staff members. Since then, enrollment has grown to nearly 400 students—300 K-4 students at the Avondale Pattillo Church and 90 fifth and sixth graders in Stone Mountain.
Principal Laurent Ditmann said he was grateful the Avondale Pattillo Church had been kind enough to let ICS use its facilities but with the school’s growing enrollment it is running out of space. He said that due to zoning rules and regulations the school cannot expand anymore.
“This place was great to open the school but it was never seen as the long-term solution,” Ditmann said. He also said that maintaining two campuses posed a lot of financial and logistical problems. “We’ve been dealing with it for five years and it’s breaking our back.”
However, a recent vote by the DeKalb School Board could offer ICS a long-term solution. Recently, the board passed a letter of intent and a charter amendment, which would allow the school to use the vacant Medlock Elementary rent-free. Medlock was closed under Interim Superintendent Ramona Tyson’s redistricting plan.
“That’s a good indication that the senior staff at DCSS and the board is committed to helping charter schools, generally speaking, and us in particular. They realize that we really add value to the system, we do something that nobody else does,” Ditmann said.
Although the deal is not final—ICS still has to negotiate the lease agreement—Ditmann said that if everything goes as planned the school could be in the building as early as August of 2012.
“What you see here, that area is the gym and when it rains we have to use the cafeteria,” Ditmann said, pointing to a large field behind the church that was mostly dirt.
The school also lacks a proper auditorium, gym and cafeteria—the area where the children eat is too small to house all of them at once so students have staggered lunches. Ditmann also said that vandalism has been a constant problem with the trailers.
Additionally, some classrooms the school has to share with the church, including a room that floods every time there is a hard rain.
Ditmann said the school, which was one of the first charter schools in Georgia, was created to address a specific purpose within the DeKalb County School System.
“It has an absolutely unique mission. It’s sometimes hard to quantify but there is no doubt that the mission in and of itself is totally unique,” Ditmann said.
Ditmann, who has been the principal since 2008, said the idea for the school was born out of the need to address the presence of large numbers of refugees in the school system.
“The Clarkston area was chosen as a refugee resettlement site about 20 odd years ago. So, the school system had to deal with this massive influx of refugee kids with no real framework to do that,” Ditmann said.
The founders of the school wanted to create a learning environment consisting of both refugee and American children in the community. Now, Ditmann said the school’s enrollment is approximately 45 percent refugees.
The curricular framework for the school is the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program, which focuses on the development of the child as an inquirer, both in and outside the classroom.
“The great thing about IB is, it not only focuses on academics, it also focuses on moral, ethical and intellectual traits that have to do with tolerance, balance, open-mindedness and intellectual risk taking,” Ditmann said.
Ditmann said that even though Medlock is a little farther than their current location, he didn’t think ICS would lose enrollment due to the distance.
“I think we’ll be losing people from Avondale Estates but we’ll be gaining people from the Medlock area,” Ditmann said. “In terms of the refugee and immigrant population…we do offer busing and we will continue to bus our refugee population to the school.”
Ditmann said he was excited about finally being able to give the students the facilities they deserve.
“There is no doubt that it’s going to change some of the profile of the school but the central philosophy, that’s not going to change,” he said.