Islamic school in Madison eager to grow

Just back from the frenzy of lunchtime recess, third-grader Amena Saleh donned a head scarf Wednesday and dropped to her knees at Madinah Academy of Madison, a full-time Islamic school on the city’s South Side.

Her prayer was one of five that are obligatory every day for Muslims but the only one that fell during school hours.

“We have a God who’s up in the sky and his name is Allah,” said Amena, 8, explaining the focus of her ritual.

At Madinah Academy, the educational program is grounded in Islam and guided by the Quran, the religion’s holy book. Now in its fifth year, the school serves 28 students in grades pre-kindergarten through three and is eager to add grade levels. It is housed in a strip mall at 1325 Greenway Cross, just off Fish Hatchery Road and near Madison’s border with Fitchburg.

Safwan Shoukfeh, a parent of a first-grader and the school’s volunteer administrator, said Muslim children are generally treated well in Madison-area public schools but that the school’s founders sought a place where Islam could be instilled throughout the day. In that sense, the school is no different from others that emphasize the values of a particular faith, he said.

“We want to give them the basics of who they are and what they are supposed to do to be good, law-abiding citizens,” he said.

Students of all faiths are welcome, although so far no non-Muslim children have enrolled, Shoukfeh said.

Each day starts with 30 minutes of Quran memorization and a brief thanking of Allah. The rest of the school day follows a fairly typical course based on state curriculum, except for 45 minutes of daily Arabic language study.

Parent Heather Nixon said she was surprised at how quickly her two children embraced the school and how important it is to them to be around others of a similar religious background. Nixon said she grew up Protestant and converted to Islam about four years ago after marrying a Muslim from Egypt.

“Since my children are half American, I didn’t realize they’d have an Islamic identity at such a young age, but they do,” she said.

Young movement

The Islamic school movement in the U.S. is relatively young and still finding its place, said Karen Keyworth of East Lansing, Mich., a co-founder of the Islamic Schools League of America. A 2006 study identified about 240 Islamic schools, with more than half of them one to 10 years old.

The schools enroll upwards of 38,000 students, but most Muslim students in the U.S. – probably 97 percent or more – attend public schools, she said.

External threats against Islamic schools are rare, Keyworth said. Still, Muslim educators must vigilantly beat back misinformation that could poison the atmosphere and make it harder for an Islamic school to operate, said Ronald Shaheed, education director of the Clara Mohammed School in Milwaukee.

“I think all of us are vulnerable to whatever the prevailing news is, whether that’s 9/11 or Afghanistan,” he said. “The challenge for us is to make sure we participate fully in the community so that people see us as fellow citizens.”

Shaheed’s school, opened in 1972, has 193 students in grades pre-K through high school, about 20 percent of whom are non-Muslims, he said. There is at least one other Islamic school in Wisconsin, according to the Islamic Schools League. Salam School, also in Milwaukee, has about 550 students in grades pre-K through 10th.

Hoping to grow

Madinah Academy opened with 30 students in 2004 and has not increased its enrollment, a matter of some frustration for school officials. While a precise count of Muslim families in the area is not known, annual Islamic celebrations often draw more than 2,000 people, so there is great potential for growth, said Shoukfeh, a self-employed accountant who immigrated to the U.S. from Syria.

Much of the problem is probably due to hesitation over taking a chance on a start-up school, Shoukfeh said. A small number of Muslim families may perceive the school as standing out too much at a time when anything Islamic can draw suspicion, he said.

The school’s annual tuition is relatively low. Tuition in grades 1-3, for instance, is $3,500, compared to $6,380 at Edgewood Campus School, a Catholic private school in Madison, and $4,980 at Abundant Life Christian School in Madison. Both Edgewood and Abundant Life are academically accredited; Madinah Academy hopes to one day seek accreditation, which is voluntary.

The Islamic school operates on a tight annual budget of $175,000. That covers rent and the salaries of seven full-time employees, including six teachers, one of whom is state certified.

Daniel Coate, who teaches the combined second and third grade, declined to give his salary but said it is comparatively low for an educator. The trade-off is a job he thoroughly enjoys and a career held in high esteem by Muslims, he said. The Quran is filled with references to learning, education and the use of reason, he said.

“Being a Muslim, we understand that the sacrifices we make now will be rewarded later on or in the hereafter,” said Coate, who has a master’s degree in English. “Allah doesn’t overlook those things.”

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