Faith, in Society
Published in TC Today - Volume 35, No. 2
By David McKay Wilson
School start-ups are always an adventure—but founding and running an Islamic school in the United States is a challenge of an entirely different order. How, in a surrounding culture that is not always welcoming, to foster a sense of pride in Islamic identity and tradition? And at the same time, how to engage a secular world?
That is the balancing act undertaken by Amanny Khattab, Principal of Noble Leadership Academy, a private Muslim elementary and middle school in Passaic, New Jersey, that opened under her leadership two years ago.
“We are building a strong community here,” says Khattab, a New Jersey native whose father emigrated from Egypt to the United States. “And we want to empower our students to take on the challenge of living as young Muslims in the broader community.”
Khattab designed the school as a student at TC’s Summer Principals Academy (SPA) and says her success owes directly to that experience—and to the help she received at the start from SPA Director Craig Richards, Professor of Education, and to the recent support from Professor of Practice Eric Nadelstern, the former New York City Deputy Schools Chancellor.
Khattab had no thought of founding a school when she arrived at TC in July 2009. At the time, she’d just completed her second year as principal of a private Muslim school in New Jersey. But two weeks into the summer session, Khattab was approached by a group of Muslim parents who were determined to start a new school that September. They had money, enthusiasm and a potential agreement with the Diocese of Paterson to rent a vacant parochial school in Passaic. They wanted Khattab to be the founding principal.
“I’d been at SPA for all of two weeks,” recalls Khattab, herself a graduate of a Muslim high school in Teaneck, New Jersey. “I told people the money was there, but I needed help. Before I knew it, people had given me teacher handbooks and discipline procedures.”
By the second week of August, the Academy had the building, which needed significant repairs. The school opened on September 23, with 90 students in kindergarten through seventh grade.
Noble has since added an eighth-grade class and plans to expand to include the ninth and tenth grades in September.
“Amanny embraces the value of change as she explores new territory,” says Nadelstern, who visited Noble Academy with Richards in early April. “With a private religious school, it’s easy to fall into centuries-old patterns of how to teach. It’s remarkable to see how she has embraced some of the best new pedagogy without sacrificing culture and language development, and the complex issues surrounding religious ideas.”
The Academy, which will welcome 40 new students this fall, bringing its enrollment to nearly 200, has broken traditional gender barriers by encouraging boy-girl interaction in the classroom. The school isn’t affiliated with a mosque and welcomes Muslims from all denominations. Its weekly curriculum balances core academic subjects with four periods each of Quran and Islamic Studies and five periods of Arabic.
The school’s approach emphasizes project-based assignments, along with hands-on learning in science and math. In a science lab, for example, the students may be told the results of an experiment and asked to explain how they occurred.
“The idea is to teach them to think critically and understand the material,” Khattab says.
In April, students in a religious studies class discussed a reading about the Prophet and the actions of men surrounding him. In a science class, fourth graders did a hands-on exercise with chunks of obsidian, pumice and granite to identify different types of rock. Students in an English class came up with synonyms for new vocabulary words.
Ultimately, though, Khattab believes that building a strong school culture is the key to success. Sitting around the lunch table, several Noble middle school students talked about the strong ties they feel to each other, their teachers and the school. They particularly liked the leadership training class that Khattab teaches for grades six to eight, in which students often grapple with issues of anti-Muslim bias.
“We get our students to believe that being Muslim is something to be proud of,” says Khattab, who acknowledges that, a decade after 9/11, young Muslims continue to face derogatory remarks from some Americans. Girls who follow Muslim tradition and cover their hair with head scarves may also be targets of anti-Islamic comments. “And I remind them that there have always been groups in America who have been looked down upon, but that those groups have gotten beyond it.”
Yasmine Elfara, an eighth grader, says Khattab’s leadership class provides a framework for negotiating issues in society.
“Sister Amanny teaches about ethical dilemmas and how to be a leader when we grow up,” she says. “She’s opening us up to the outside world.”
Seventh grader Annisea Elliott puts it more simply: “At public schools, you can feel like a real outsider. Here, everybody is together.”