America’s “independent sector”—its civil society—is the best-funded and most robust in the world. It consistently develops new and effective approaches to some of the nation’s most serious social problems. Since 2001, the Manhattan Institute has sought to identify and recognize some of the most promising social entrepreneurs and the new non-profits they’ve founded, based on their own original ideas. The more than 50 winners of the Richard Cornuelle award, named for the writer who coined the term independent sector, have addressed challenges as diverse as teaching English to new immigrants, building facilities for charter schools, helping older Americans “age in place,” developing science and engineering curricula for high schools, and helping African-American college students continue through to graduation. Most are supported entirely by private philanthropy. In this column, I’ll profile this year’s winners of the Cornuelle award. This week, I’ll feature Luma Mufleh, founder of the Fugees Academy, a special school in suburban Atlanta for children of refugees.
Clarkston, Georgia hardly seems to be a likely site for an influx of refugees from war-torn parts of the world, from South Sudan to Iraq to the Congo to Burma to Nepal. But the names of the businesses in Clarkston Village strip mall quickly make clear that something unusual is happening here.
There’s the Katmandu Kitchen and Grill, the African Restaurant Food Mart, and the Global Pharmacy. Look more closely on weekday mornings and one can spot students from all those ethnic backgrounds walking through the shopping center parking lot—all dressed smartly and wearing school ties. They are the ties of a new school, one established specifically to serve refugee children. They’re part of a sizeable block of refugee families resettled by the federal government in Clarkston, the result of a decision to take advantage of the relatively low rents and available housing in the apartment blocks of suburban Atlanta, whose metro area is among the new hubs for refugee resettlement.
That the Fugees Family school (the name is a pun on “refugees” as well as the name of a hip-hop group) exists at all—and has proven to be effective at educating refugee children, some of whom arrive illiterate even in their native languages—is the result of an amazing series of fortuitous coincidences at the center of which can be found Luma Mufleh, founder and director of Fugees.
Smith College. She did not have a traditional Muslim woman’s background. Her father had wanted her to be educated; in Amman, he sent her to a British international school. During her years at Smith, she starred on the soccer team.
The roots of the Fugees Academy, today a school with 76 refugee students in grades 7–12, are decidedly on the soccer field. It was in 2005 that Luma took a wrong turn into one of the Clarkston apartment complexes, where rents are cheap and refugees concentrated. There she saw boys playing soccer and quickly realized that they could benefit from coaching. The team she would recruit and coach would lead her to abandon her business interests and gain the attention of the New York Times, 60 Minutes, and Sports Illustrated. A book by New York Times reporter Warren St. John was optioned to Hollywood.
In the years since, that initial buzz has faded; but Luma’s enthusiasm and entrepreneurship have not. Getting to know the refugee students led her to understand their situation in the local public schools. As a rule, newcomers were placed in classrooms based on their age, notwithstanding the fact that many, especially from less-developed countries such as Congo or South Sudan, could neither read nor write, let alone follow grade-level lessons.
That led to what Luma makes clear is the core organizing principle of Fugees. “They have to be taught the basics,” as she puts it, “before they can do anything else.” If students have to be taught the alphabet before they can be taught to read, that becomes their lesson plan. If they have to be taught to add and subtract before they can be taught algebra, then that will be their lesson plan. Both situations are common for Fugees students, most of whom have not only had their childhoods disrupted by war but who then lived years without formal schooling in U.N. refugee camps, prior to their families’ good fortune of being admitted to the U.S.
The results are impressive. Fugees has just graduated its first senior class—of three. All are headed to four-year colleges. The bigger picture is even brighter. The Southern Association of Independent Schools found the following:
“By the end of 7th grade, Fugees average a 75% increase in their National Percentile Rank, while their peers at public school in the community average a 2% decrease in their NPR. Between 7th and 8th grade, Fugees average a 41% increase in NPR while their peers average a 3% increase. … 90% of Fugees students will be first generation middle school graduates, and 100% the first in their families to graduate from high school.”
Providing for those who blossom led Luma to arrange for students to have access to remote advanced placement courses and to forge a relationship with the nearby community college, such that qualified students can take courses there for credit. Just as their families must be focused on getting work (there is virtually no safety net for refugees and work is actually required after a short resettlement orientation period), graduating seniors are focused on careers.
Nor has the initial impulse—using soccer to draw refugee children into education—faded. Luma has been as successful a soccer coach as she’s been a school leader. In 2016, the Fugees male varsity team had an undefeated (14–0) record, losing only in the state championship game to a two-time defending champion.
Such results have attracted significant support, all of it in the form of private philanthropy, which supports the school and its $1.2 million annual budget. School extends over most of the summer and the school day includes two full meals in a bona fide cafeteria. (Students must help clean up.)
Luma Mufleh is an only-in-America story. She relies on the sort of private philanthropy that is in short supply outside the U.S; Fugees exists only because of the formal generosity of this country, in welcoming refugees at all. She is someone who has found, in America, a welcoming adopted country. Not only is she a Muslim but she is gay—and has had to endure estrangement from her family and from her religion.
She has found, moreover, that persistence, not publicity, is what’s most required as she pursues a dream of a permanent building for Fugees—and replication of its model in resettlement sites around the country. She recalls the phone call she received from a former Fugees family which had moved to Lewiston, Maine, another resettlement hub. They were shocked to learn that “there’s no Fugees here. They told me, ‘come up here, we need you’.” As increasing numbers of refugees come to America, other cities that learn of the Fugees may well feel the same way.
This piece originally appeared on Forbes
Howard Husock is the Vice President of Research and Publications at the Manhattan Institute.