Blessed With Brothers

A Muslimah’s Day to Day Life

An Education in Islam August 20, 2008

Filed under: Islam — blessedwithbrothers @ 11:45 am
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I was sent this article about Islamic school. It’s pretty interesting.

An education in Islam

As Muslim schools grow, parents must decide: public or religious education?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A decade ago, the Austin area had no Islamic schools. Most Muslim parents sent their kids to public schools and hoped that exposure to drinking, immodest clothing and other un-Islamic behavior wouldn’t undermine their religious values.

Now local Muslims have their choice of three schools — in Austin, Renaissance Academy and Austin Peace Academy, and in Round Rock, the Illuminated Academy — reflecting a similar surge in new Muslim schools across the state and the country.

But as parents embrace the new educational opportunities for their children, they’re also grappling with an issue they’ve never faced before. Renaissance and Peace Academy have begun adding high school grades with plans to expand to the 12th grade within the next couple of years, and Illuminated, which goes through sixth grade, is adding a grade each year. For the first time, local Muslim families will have the possibility of educating their kids exclusively in Islamic schools. But not everyone thinks that’s a good idea.

Will staying in a Muslim setting through high school help their kids develop as confident Muslim leaders when they arrive on secular college campuses or isolate them from the mainstream, making integration into American culture more difficult or impossible later?

Mohammad Al-Bedaiwi and Bahia Amawi volunteered and helped raise money for Islamic schools even before they had children. Now that the couple’s oldest daughter, Sumaya, is in the first grade at Renaissance Academy in far North Austin, they’re seeing the fruits of their labor. Along with reading and writing, Sumaya is learning Arabic and Islamic theology and the value of serving others — each student much complete 20 hours of community service to graduate. Her parents believe she is absorbing something even more rare: a sense of pride in being both American and Muslim.

A bright-eyed girl in a navy tunic, slacks and black patent leather shoes, Sumaya shyly offered the reason she likes her school: “because there are a lot of Muslims like me.”

Al-Bedaiwi, 35, a software engineer who grew up in Ramallah in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, dismisses the idea that Muslim youth will miss out by not going to a public high school.

“I think (Islamic schools) will make them better prepared to be leaders,” he said.

Muslim Web site creator and editor Shahed Amanullah isn’t so sure. His 6-year-old son is enrolled in the first grade at Austin Peace Academy, a North Austin Islamic school that goes through the 10th grade; his younger son will start preschool there in the spring.

In a recent column in the Muslim publication Illume Magazine, Amanullah cited the benefits of an Islamic school.

“After attending this school for only two years, my son tests several grades above the state average and can recite far more surahs of the Quran than I can,” he wrote, “with the added benefit of having a proud sense of his Muslim identity.”

But before his boys leave home for college, Amanullah, who attended public schools in California, says he wants them to learn how to “interact in a pluralistic, gender-mixed and Muslim minority society.”

He hopes their presence in a public school will also help “inoculate other students from anti-Muslim feelings.”

Muslim youth can receive religious instruction at the mosque and stay connected through Muslim youth camps and retreats.

This is how Amanullah’s identity was forged, he said, adding, “I came out OK.”

Muslim schools increasingly popular

Although parents might be divided on whether to send their kids to public school, there’s no question that more Muslim families support Islamic education, following in the steps of Christians and Jews who have established a tradition of educational excellence with private religious schools, according to “Educating the Muslims of America,” a book that will be published next spring.

“A large number of Muslim parents are highly educated professionals who place a great value on education,” said Yvonne Haddad, professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and one of the book’s editors. “The fact that public schools in many areas in the United States are struggling with issues of violence, drugs and premarital sex keep parents very concerned.”

In addition, she said, they’re concerned about the Islamophobia their children might face, and they see Islamic schools as a way to protect them.

According to one of the book’s contributors, Karen Keyworth, co-founder and director of the Islamic Schools League of America, it’s difficult to know the number of Islamic schools, but she estimates about 235 in the United States and Virgin Islands.

For decades, the focus among Muslims was building mosques. And when it came to education, Al-Bedaiwi said, they tried to imitate Christian Sunday school. It wasn’t enough, he said.

“In the last 20 years, (Muslims) realized our children are losing their identity,” he said.

Families began pooling their resources to start small schools that often struggled in the beginning, Muslim educators said. Because they offered relatively inexpensive tuition (Renaissance currently charges about $375 a month), they had to find teachers and administrators willing to work for far less than they would earn in a public school.

But over time, the schools distinguished themselves academically, and the small class sizes and emphasis on character development drew more interest from Muslim families, said Hamed Ghazali, chairman of the Muslim American Society Council of Islamic Schools, an organization that supports Muslim educators.

Ghazali works as a consultant with schools across the country, helping them get accredited and develop a curriculum that emphasizes nurturing “committed, balanced Muslims” who shine academically and perform community service.

“It’s no longer like the past, where the Islamic school is struggling,” he said. “Now it’s a really solid system.”

In Houston, he said, several schools have long waiting lists for enrollment, and more cities, including Kansas City, Kan., Oklahoma City and Wichita, Kan., have shown support for such high schools.

Muslims fit in, but schools open to all

Renaissance opened last fall with grades pre-K through 8. The school barely came together in time for the academic year, said Principal Mohammed Malley. Organizers found a building in June — a former insurance company call center in North Austin — and managed to round up 140 students by August. This year, the school enrolled 160 and added a ninth-grade class. It plans to add a grade each year.

The hallways are decorated with construction paper displays on the presidential election and Islamic values. A large recreational room is used for afternoon prayer and student plays. Last year, the sixth-graders staged a production about the challenges of growing up Muslim in America. Students recently volunteered to stuff backpacks with school supplies and donate them to needy families in Austin.

The school isn’t exclusively Muslim. Renaissance has hired non-Muslim teachers — head scarves are not required for female teachers — and, like Austin’s other Islamic schools, admits non-Muslim students. Administrators and parents say they hope more non-Muslim students will enroll in the future.

The curriculum includes the basics such as language arts, social studies, math and science but also requires students to master Arabic, the language of the Quran, and take Islamic and Quaranic studies. Students start memorizing chapters of the Quran as early as pre-kindergarten.

Austin’s other Islamic schools offer similar models, and the three schools now have more than 300 students enrolled. Estimates of Austin’s Muslim population have ranged between 8,000 and 15,000 people.

Malley said he couldn’t be happier that his four children can attend Renaissance and avoid the sense of isolation he felt as one of a few Muslims in his Arizona public school in the 1980s.

“I remember the struggle of identity I went through,” he said. “I don’t see that with my children.”

Imam Islam Mossaad, leader of the North Austin Muslim Community Center, said he isn’t opposed to Muslims going to public school.

Much depends on the level of religious observance in the home, he said. When he was growing up and attending public schools in Austin and Pflugerville, Mossaad’s mother provided religious education in the home that he said helped him and his siblings preserve their Muslim values.

“Nowadays, with both parents working, the time to teach Islam to the kids is not available,” he said, adding that Islamic schools provide a sense of comfort for parents.

But he also thinks it’s important for young people to learn to cope with the challenges of mainstream society in a public school setting.

“This is how they’ll mature as American Muslims,” he said.

As far as Al-Bedaiwi and Amawi are concerned, there’s no better way to mature as a Muslim than to continue in an Islamic school.

“Right now, the message is you fit in as a Muslim,” Al-Bedaiwi said.

“And be proud of it,” Amawi added.