Madinat al-Muslimeen Islamic Message Board
|Non-Muslim students are rare in area Muslim schools....|
|11/26/01 at 01:49:59|
[url=http://chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0111250380nov25.story?coll=chi%2Dnewsnationworld%2Dhed]Different faiths, common bond[/url]
Non-Muslim students are rare in area Muslim schools, but such pupils discover similarities with classmates and get a unique look at another culture.
By Tracy Dell'Angela
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
November 25, 2001
It's finals week in the Muslim school in Lombard, and Agnes Babinski is poring over the notes from her 10th-grade Islamic studies class. Only an oval of her pale face peeks out from the fringe of her white hijab, and a shapeless, ankle-length tunic conceals her jeans and T-shirt.
Agnes and her younger brother, Piotr, are the only non-Muslims enrolled in the College Preparatory School of America or in any of the six other Muslim schools in the Chicago area. Nonetheless, theirs has been a seamless transition into an educational culture largely ignored and misunderstood by non-Muslim-Americans.
"We have a Christian background, and we thought the cultural differences might be too much for them," said their father, Roman, an engineer and Polish immigrant who lives with his family in Bolingbrook. "But the biggest adjustment was academic. They had to catch up to the other students and there was so much homework."
Although Christian teachers are a presence in almost every Muslim school, Christian students are rare there, especially those whose parents are not teaching in the school, said Tasneema Ghazi, curriculum director for Iqra International Educational Foundation, a Skokie-based organization that offers training and support to some 420 full-time Muslim schools in North America.
Ghazi said few non-Muslim parents consider these schools for their children, because of stereotypes about Muslims and scant advertising by the schools, which typically have long waiting lists of Muslim families.
At a tiny Iqra elementary school in Rockford, one of the 40 students comes from a Christian family, but the 3rd grader considers himself a Muslim after four years in the school, the principal said.
Ghazi said she hopes these opportunities will increase, especially with the broader visibility of Muslim schools and outreach since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I would love to see Muslim, Christian, Jewish children all together at these schools," Ghazi said. "You might think there would be a big cultural adjustment, but there's not, because most of the children are Americans and are interested in the same kinds of things--video games and TV shows and music.
"These children can be the ambassadors. They can get to know one another and will understand one another. This will not only be good for non-Muslim families, who will see that these schools are not filled with all these strange people. But it will also be an advantage for Muslim children."
At College Preparatory School of America, tucked away in a former elementary school on a quiet residential street near downtown Lombard, educators hadn't given much thought to their role as ambassadors to the Muslim world. Their concerns had been those shared by all school officials--enriching their challenging curriculum, paying the bills, finding quality teachers, lowering class size with enrollment increasing every year.
But that changed dramatically on Sept. 11, when the school closed for a week amid fears that Muslim schools would be targeted in retaliation for the terrorist attacks.
One family, Christians of Indian descent, decided to pull a daughter out of the school because of concerns about safety and pressure from extended family. It was a tense time for the students, families and staff, but the school was met with nothing but support from the community. Last month, the school hosted an open house, where the school community broke bread with Lombard leaders and neighbors.
A 25-year-old Catholic from Lombard, Nadine Broviak knew nothing about Islam when she accepted a job this fall as a 4th-grade teacher at the school. But she soon realized she belonged in this collegial place, where the children are respectful and eager to learn, the female teachers share ideas as easily as hugs, and parents and administrators trust her to inspire top work from her students.
The names on the bulletin boards might be Saad and Mukstif and Faraz instead of Katie, Michael and Lindsey, but in almost every other way Broviak's classroom is indistinguishable from any 4th-grade public school classroom. There is a reading corner with Harry Potter and Ramona Quimby books, and social studies projects are displayed on the bulletin boards. The children chatter excitedly when their reading lesson is interrupted and exchange worried glances when their teacher scolds their behavior.
"I have a lot more freedom here than I would in a public school," Broviak said. "We're very close in our room, like a family. I want the kids to feel they can talk to me about everything."
Not quite everything, as it turns out.
Dress code daunting
Books and videos must be screened to ensure there are no kissing scenes or revealing outfits. She has to be very careful of what she says about the man whose picture is on her desk, because discussions about boyfriends and dating are forbidden. And Broviak acknowledges that the dress code is daunting for a young woman who favors fashionable clothes. Non-Muslim teachers don't have to wear head scarves, but they are required to wear modest, loose-fitting clothing that covers arms and legs.
Broviak had been at the school only two weeks when the jets hit the World Trade Center towers, but she never considered leaving. Neither did her Catholic colleague, 3rd-grade teacher Natasha Ustick, a three-year veteran of the school who faced pressure from family members who feared both Muslims and the expected backlash against them.
Broviak said, "I had no fear ... mostly I was worried about my students and upset they missed so much school." Broviak added that her experiences in the school have broadened her perspective at a time when Americans have become increasingly curious about Muslims and the Middle East. "The students are very, very in tune with their religion, and they love sharing it. It's amazing what they have taught me."
For the Babinski family, they turned to the Muslim school for the same reasons that drive many families to parochial schools: They were not happy with the academics or the social pressures in public schools. A Muslim friend recommended the Lombard school, touting its curriculum as rigorous and its tuition as reasonable.
The family spent a year weighing the decision, but in the end it was Agnes' enthusiasm after her first tour that cinched the deal in early 2000.
Her mother, Hanna, was nervous when she spotted the segregated classrooms and conservative uniforms. As in many Muslim schools, boys and girls have little contact with one another starting in 8th grade--with separate classes, lunch and recess. She wondered what interest her children would have in Islamic studies or Arabic, classes that are considered optional for non-Muslims, or what they would do when their classmates gathered to pray as many as five times a day.
At an age when many American girls are obsessed with boys and fashion, Agnes (whose formal name is Agnieszka) is required to wear an outfit that makes her almost indistinguishable from her classmates.
There are no dances or dating at school, just socializing with other girls and loads of schoolwork.
"She feels much better in this environment than in a public high school," Roman Babinski said of his daughter, whom he described as an incredibly shy and serious 15-year-old who didn't want to talk publicly about her school life. "I am very happy with this. We are pretty conservative, and it is one of the reasons we wanted to leave the public schools."
For Piotr, a 7th grader, the initial adjustment didn't seem as profound on the surface. His uniform is no different from the ones adopted by public schools--a white shirt and dark pants--and he attends class with girls, although the boys and girls sit on opposite sides of the room. A quiet boy with a sunny sense of humor, Piotr initially told his parents he wasn't so sure about the school, but agreed to try it for a year.
Children's secret code
But three months into their second year there, Agnes and Piotr Babinski have told their parents they want to stay through graduation. Despite the early crush of homework, the two are A students with enough free time to watch too much TV and play too many video games, their father said.
Sometimes, when his children aren't behaving, Roman Babinski teases that he will punish them by sending them back to public school. They groan and talk about how bored they will be.
In turn, the two siblings tease their parents with their shared knowledge of Arabic, using the language as a secret code.
They don't talk much about Sept. 11 and how it has affected their classmates, Babinski said. But their immersion into this different world has heightened their sense of outrage over all forms of bigotry.
"This school has changed my children in so many good ways," Babinski said. "They are more organized. They work harder. We have less and less fighting because they have so much in common now."
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