At DeKalb PATH Academy, an Oasis for Refugees and Immigrants: How One Atlanta School Has Created a Community Around Students Learning English for the First Time

Credit: PATH Academy website

Atlanta, Georgia

Principal Crystal Felix-Clarke’s office sits at the front of DeKalb PATH Academy’s building. Her door opens directly into the lobby; large front windows ensure that every person walking up to the school’s front door has a view of what she calls her “fishbowl.” By the time they see her, however, she’s usually been swimming in work for a while.

Felix-Clarke comes early to school when she can. There’s no shortage of projects for those pre-dawn hours. She handles paperwork, fields messages from students’ parents, works on logistics for upcoming school celebrations, and keeps a close eye on whether DeKalb PATH’s nine school buses are running on time.

A middle school principal’s job is never done. There’s a booster seat strapped to a chair facing her desk. Felix-Clarke has a 2-year-old daughter, and sometimes it’s easier to juggle motherhood and work here in her office. Fortunately, her son, as a DeKalb PATH student, has his own seat in class.

Felix-Clarke also takes advantage of the morning solitude to center herself. “I just walk through and pray and ask God to please help us to do the right thing all the time, because it’s a huge responsibility … and I am completely incapable of making every decision the right way, so I need help.”

Her faith has guided her through her early years teaching in New York City to her leadership role here at DeKalb PATH Academy, a public charter school in Atlanta’s wealthy Brookhaven neighborhood. The school was founded in 2002, by Suttiwan Cox, a charismatic educator — and refugee from Thailand — who had spent years working with Atlanta-area students who were learning English for the first time in U.S. schools. She started DeKalb PATH to build a school organized around meeting those students’ needs. As a public charter school, DeKalb PATH has significant autonomy to do precisely that. In 2016-17, 78 percent of DeKalb PATH students were Latino and 38 percent were recognized as English language learners.

DeKalb PATH educators say that the school’s families want traditional values, academic rigor, and a culture that teaches students the rewards of hard work. In response, school leaders have made tweaks to the schedule, staff, and curricula in order to build a coherent educational model that satisfies families and works for students. Students are tested to see where their academic strengths and weaknesses are, and then are grouped with other students with similar profiles. This makes it easier for teachers to tailor their instruction and support academic growth. The school’s extra instructional sessions on Saturday mornings help, too. They’ve also committed tens of thousands of dollars of their state funding to provide school bus routes to reach students living throughout the county.

This is partly because most of the school’s families can’t afford to live near the school. While the school’s zip code has a median income approaching $90,000, 96 percent of DeKalb PATH students come from low-income families. Many of them live 10 to 15 miles away, in towns like Clarkston and Stone Mountain.

Ask Felix-Clarke about why she rises early to do the difficult, tedious work behind the scenes, and she can’t help but talk about love. She’ll tell you that educating PATH Academy’s students is about much more than academic success.

“The harder road and the bigger benefit is to learn the person before you teach the person. That’s my belief. I think there’s a lot of other people who think that way but are scared to do that work. But it’s there. And I think it’s worth the risk.” She continues, “At its core, what we do here is actually really simple … [we’re] creating this small community in our school, and really learning our kids in a way that schools aren’t usually allowed to … You learn people. And eventually you end up loving them. It’s inevitable that you end up loving people that you learn.”

Whether it’s the love, Felix-Clarke’s faith, or the school’s student-focused model, something seems to be working. In the 2016-17 school year, nearly 75 percent of DeKalb PATH’s eighth-graders were reading at or above grade level, which is above the eighth-grade average for the state of Georgia. The state reports that DeKalb PATH’s “students’ academic growth is higher than 91 percent of middle schools in the state.”

The school, according to Felix-Clarke, was founded as “a place where, if you went, through pure grit, you were going to change your trajectory and possibly the trajectory of your family. And there is a really deep connection between that ideology and not just the immigrant ideology but the Latino ideology.” Incidentally, the school made T-shirts for a recent perseverance challenge dance, which read, “Excuses are NOT invited to this party.”

The focus on students’ character is palpable in every classroom and every conversation on campus: DeKalb PATH teachers aren’t just building skills and knowledge, they’re building a foundation for adulthood. In an era of high national anxiety about American economic competitiveness and schools’ ability to raise academic achievement, the school’s emphasis on values stands out.

Felix-Clarke recognizes that American national urgency around improving academic performance sometimes “doesn’t allow teachers to connect with the children they interact with every day.”

“There’s pressure on teachers to perform, there’s pressure on kids to perform, but there’s that missing link of understanding who you’re teaching — and why — that gets lost in how we’ve institutionalized education,” she says.

So character development lurks in the school’s name: PATH stands for Perseverance, Accomplishment, Triumph, and Honor. Felix-Clarke knows that this isn’t always common in many schools, but it’s what her students’ families want — and what is helping their students excel.

Take the summer school. Until last year, it was a three-week remedial instruction and test preparation session. Teachers told Felix-Clarke that they didn’t think students retained much. So seventh-grade ELA teacher Elizabeth Peyton proposed a new model, where teachers would design new curricula consisting primarily of project-based courses centered on giving students room to explore. They hashed it out, and PATH University was born, with a slate of interesting courses, including: one on design principles, a building class, a mock trial module put together with the lawyer brother of a DeKalb PATH teacher, drama workshops, and much more. Around 80 percent of students signed up (for summer school) voluntarily.

This commitment to building deep connections with students is central to DeKalb PATH’s model. “What I know is that we are losing them when we take away that connection, that relationship, or the potential for it,” says Felix-Clarke. “You can’t teach somebody and you can’t learn from somebody who you don’t trust.”

Staff prioritize these relationships; as teachers learn what animates each student, they’re better prepared to help each student recognize it too.

DeKalb PATH’s model is designed to grow middle-schoolers toward responsible adulthood. Assignments are opportunities to learn — how to find the least common multiple of a set of numbers and so forth — but they’re also chances for students to develop mental discipline, personal responsibility, and a mature work ethic.

“Yeah, we have great scores,” says Felix-Clarke, “But we teach life at PATH, not math.”

DeKalb PATH classrooms show how teacher-student bonds are deeply entangled with the school’s strong academic results. In Jason Stein’s fifth-grade math class, things are moving fast. Students are checking their homework as an assistant teacher circulates among their desks. Stein calls their attention to the front of the class, where he’s prepared a lesson on finding the multiples of a given number. While the lesson is projected from his computer onto an interactive SMART board, the instructional method is as old as Socrates. Stein moves the lesson forward by asking students to define key terms, including “multiple,” and repeatedly checks to see if anyone disagrees with their classmates’ answers.

Beneath the obvious flow of the lesson, there are a host of barely visible routines. Kids seem to intuitively understand their teacher’s expectations, his cues, and the flow of the lesson. Stein alternates between calling on individual students and asking for choral responses. Students are quick to switch tasks and get materials from their desks. Then, suddenly, Stein cocks his head, looks warily at the class, and says, “We’d better push the seats back, because you never know when a hippopotamus might come through the room.”

At that trigger, the kids gasp and hop from their seats. It’s a dorky signal, but somehow this class of almost-teenagers doesn’t even bat — let alone roll — an eye. In under 60 seconds, every desk in the classroom has been pushed to the walls, and every student is sitting on a rug in the middle of the class. No hippopotamus materializes, but the next phase of the lesson starts with scarcely any learning time lost.


“It’s a pretty remarkable school. There is a common vision for what excellent teaching and learning looks like in the classroom … It’s a shame, frankly, as a state we haven’t been able to scale that model more broadly.”
—Cayanna Good, deputy director of innovations and academic strategy for the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement

The character focus extends to the school’s approach to discipline, which borrows from the basic economics of adult American life. Students at PATH live and work on a paycheck system. They get “paid” for doing their homework and keeping up their basic obligations as citizens of the school. If they’re falling short — late homework, behavior problems, etc. — teachers dock their weekly pay. Each student’s “bank account” serves as a tally of their performance for a particular academic quarter.

Even though students’ “paychecks” are imaginary, they still come with consequences. Every few months, PATH staff members launch “perseverance challenges.” They tally up the students’ accounts and set a cutoff point — students above that mark earn a variety of awards and privileges, such as homework vouchers and raffle tickets for education technology.

Most important, however, students engage in conversations and reflective writing exercises during the challenges. These start with prompts like “What are the greatest problems you have encountered in your life? In overcoming them, what talents, gifts, and ideas have you developed?” Another reads, “What excuses have you told yourself that you are ready to bury today? Write them inside of this coffin — and then use a black Sharpie to bury them.”

The school’s culture of human development is visible beyond its walls. Cayanna Good, deputy director of innovations and academic strategy for the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, visited recently.

“It’s a pretty remarkable school,” she said. “There is a common vision for what excellent teaching and learning looks like in the classroom … It’s a shame, frankly, as a state we haven’t been able to scale that model more broadly.”

What makes an excellent school? DeKalb PATH suggests it’s not a matter of simple demographics. Its enrollment almost universally falls into what education researchers euphemistically term “at-risk” student populations. Rather, perhaps it’s that DeKalb PATH Academy was founded by an immigrant educator and is currently led by a daughter of immigrants, both of whom have extensive personal and professional experience with immigrant families.

It’s using its charter flexibility to meet — and adjust to — those families’ needs. Parents tell Felix-Clarke that they expect the school to hold their kids to unambiguously rigorous personal and academic standards. It’s “cultural in the refugee and immigrant community,” she says. “School is like the bridge to solidifying your status socioeconomically in this country.”

But, in 2018, “solidified” status in the United States can be complicated for immigrant families. In the present era of increased uncertainty for immigrant communities in the United States, while the school cultivates personal responsibility in its students, it also envelops them in its protective community. Felix-Clarke talks about taking up a schoolwide collection to help a mother travel to an unexpected funeral. She rattles through more stories: working with children whose parents have recently separated, checking in on DeKalb PATH alumni at local private high schools, soothing a student whose apartment building was being torn down. Her voice rises as she talks about children and their immigrant families fighting to navigate new barriers to integrating into their communities in Georgia. She wipes her eyes.

“This is perseverance,” she says, telling me what she tells them. “This is what it is. It’s when things are not ideal and you keep your head down and you clench your teeth, and you push through. I was like, ‘We’re gonna do this together. You’re safe here, I want you focused.’ ”

At one point, the school’s crackling loudspeakers broke through my conversation with Felix-Clarke: “I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America…” She stopped, mid-sentence, walked to the window, and consecrated her daily work in the service of the Republic to which it stands. And then, as student announcements began, she snapped back on topic, her act of reflexive patriotism left hanging there in the office fishbowl.

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