Wednesday, October 19, 2005

COLUMN -- Al-Amal School teaches lesson of pluralism

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:35 AM |  

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

I was reminded of the Pilgrims. Like the Pilgrims of 1620, the pilgrims with whom I shared the traditional dates and juice of Ramadan also came to this country seeking religious freedom, a freedom sometimes stifled in their native countries.

The occasion was a fundraiser for Al-Amal School. A private school in Fridley, Al-Amal is an accredited, full-time Islamic school serving 370 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Its mission is preparing Muslim children for American society while preserving their Islamic heritage.

Here is the first irony. While public education preaches multiculturalism, public school policies and the environments they foster are antithetical to the diversity they preach. Reaction to a lack of discipline and moral values in government schools, intolerance for the overt observance of Islamic practices and a lack of academic rigor are major reasons why Al-Amal was founded 11 years ago, why it is thriving and expanding, and why it provides a model for a genuine "public education" system for students of all faiths and economic levels.

More irony. Although touted as indicative of Minnesota's diversity, the Muslim community has more in common with conservative Christians than with the secularized environment fostered by government schools. Muslims share conservative concerns about public education — the exclusion of religion, the teaching of evolution, abortion politics, sex education and general lack of academic emphasis.

"Al-Amal serves two purposes," Principal Salah Ayari said. "Parents choose to send their children here to shield them from influences that are not in keeping with Islamic moral code, but they also want an education for their children that is academically rigorous. Our goal is producing individuals who can go out into American society and make positive contributions without compromising Islamic faith."

Thus, in science, for example, evolution is taught as the mainstream theory of where mankind came from, but it is taught in conjunction with Islamic divine creation. Unlike public schools that see that juxtaposition as a problem, at Al-Amal it is an opportunity.

"Our students must know what mainstream thinking is if we expect them to be leaders," Ayari said. "They cannot be leaders if they are narrow-minded."

What Ayari describes is not a radical concept. The Al-Amal model of a community school reflecting community values defined "public education" before progressives gave "public" the meaning "controlled by a central government authority."

That does not, however, equate to a lack of diversity. In every class at Al-Amal there are ebony-skinned Somalis sitting next to brown-skinned children of Pakistani descent. There are dark-haired students from the Middle East mixing with children bearing a distinctive Egyptian profile. And the diversity is more than skin deep.

"We have students whose parents came from countries ruled by strict Islamic codes," Ayari said. "Others from countries ruled by kings; some from eastern democracies like India; others from western European countries."

About 90 percent of the students at Al-Amal were born in this country. Al-Amal families, however, speak Somali, Arabic, English, Turkish, Urdu (the languages of India and Pakistan), various African dialects and western European languages. Sixty-five percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Many students receive scholarship help with the $3,500 tuition.

Like the first Pilgrims to North America, Muslims live their religion. Consequently, along with social studies, science, math, physical education and computer science, the Islamic faith is taught as part of the curriculum. The lesson books were developed in this country by American Muslims intended for use in American Islamic schools. Arabic is taught so students can read the Qur'an in its original language.

"Religious curriculum tends to reflect the politics of where it was written," Ayari said. "Our goal at Al-Amal is to reinforce the idea of American citizenship. We want to prepare our kids to be part of society while keeping their faith. We want them to be representatives of their faith — good American Muslims."

Consequently, social studies is another core subject, which includes American history and the U.S. Constitution. As Ayari explains, Muslims, like other Americans, might disagree with specific government policies; however, they recognize that the American system of government and its values overlaps the tenets of their faith and protects their freedom to live by them.

Private schools like Al-Amal preserve the genuine diversity of ideas that keeps America a vibrant country. That brings us to the final irony. If public education is all about the children, what is best for them, why then is there such resistance to meaningful school choice?

Category: Column,