Going Mainstream
Islamic School Becomes First to Gain Accreditation in New England
By Lisa Kocian

It's located on 2.8 leafy acres in Shrewsbury, complete with a basketball court, small playground, and the traditional classes that can be found in any public school. But Al-Hamra Academy in Shrewsbury, a private school housed in a simple two-story brick building under an American flag, also teaches Arabic, Islamic studies, and the Koran. There are prayers during the school day.
Now, the academy has become the first Islamic school in New England to win accreditation, a milestone for the region's Muslim community.
"Accreditation is really a sign of maturity of the school," said Bill Bennett, director of the commission on independent schools at the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the accrediting body. "Accreditation really comes when a school feels like it's time to join the mainstream of other independent schools in New England. . . . Islamic schools also want to be a part of the mainstream."
There are only 10 Islamic schools in New England, and Al-Hamra was the first to seek accreditation, a voluntary evaluation process, Bennett said. Two other schools are in the pipeline. Accreditation took 2 1/2 years, and the academy's success was announced late last month.
The school, founded in 1994, has 152 students, male and female, preschool through eighth grade. The academy used to draw students from both New Hampshire and Connecticut, said Sadia Khan, the principal, but with a growing number of Islamic schools, students no longer have to travel so far. Still, the school in Shrewsbury draws students from Newton, Milford, Chelmsford, and other communities.
Accreditation ensures that students from the academy will not have difficulty transferring to high schools, Khan said.
"By being accredited, that makes us more credible, in a sense," she said. "This will give the parents more peace of mind."
Louis Cristillo, a research assistant professor of anthropology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, studies Muslim students in both private and public schools. He said he expects more Islamic schools, particularly high schools, to seek accreditation, because the latest generation of parents care about academic validation.
"They tend to have less of the cultural baggage that their parents came with as immigrants," said Cristillo. "They're more motivated to encourage their children to excel academically and to really integrate socially, economically, and culturally in mainstream America, yet maintaining their Muslim identity."
Also, after Sept. 11, 2001, Muslim schools were perceived as isolated from the rest of society. To combat that image, he said, the schools adopted interfaith exchange programs and made other changes.
"They wanted to counteract that perception, not only in terms of the way they are perceived by the mainstream, but also the way students see themselves," Cristillo said.
The Islamic Schools League of America encourages schools to seek accreditation, said Karen Keyworth, director of education for the group.
"We urge schools to always connect with their community," she said. "The schools all have some sort of a community project. That's part of our faith, to always contribute to your community."
There are about 235 Islamic schools across the country, Keyworth said.
The New England Association of Schools and Colleges develops the standards used to assess the educational effectiveness of public and private schools seeking accreditation. Self-evaluation, as well as peer review, are used to enforce the standards. Most high schools seek accreditation, but it is more rarely sought by elementary or middle schools.
The accreditation process helped the school create a roadmap for maintaining its standards and making improvements, Khan said.
"We knew that we were doing what we were supposed to be doing, but getting approval from a third party makes it more sweet," she said.
One goal that grew from the self-evaluation is the desire to create more extracurricular opportunities for students, Khan said, particularly in arts and in sports.
The academy has exchange programs with area schools, both public and private, she said. And that is in part to combat misconceptions about Islam.
"People's ignorance about the religion - that's what makes them be afraid of it," she said.
Bushra Khalid is president of the academy's parent-teacher organization and has a preschooler and second-grader at the school.
"I wanted my children growing up with a modern-day education, but also an Islamic background," she said.
"The one thing I really want people to know is that we're not just teaching Islam. We're teaching the real-world education with just the Islamic philosophy interspersed there."
(Lisa Kocian can be reached at lkocian@globe.com. Courtesy Globe)

 

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