Fatima Saleem’s day begins before the sun rises with the Salatul Fajr, the first of five formal daily prayers to Allah.
A devout Muslim since her conversion to Islam 10 years ago, the 25-year-old Columbia, S.C.-mother is directed by her religion in every aspect of her existence, including her 5-year-old son’s education.
Saleem is the founder of the Palmetto Muslim Home School Resource Network, a Web site that helps Muslim home schoolers locate information on everything from buying books to choosing a curriculum to learning the laws of their individual states. She was a full-time home-schooling mom until an Islamic school was established in her area this year.
The value clash between the teachings in public schools and her religious beliefs, coupled with the scarcity of Muslim schools in her region, left her little choice but to educate her child independently, she says. Today, her sentiments are shared by thousands of Muslim Americans, the fastest growing group within the national home schooling movement.
There are 1.7 million American kids who won’t be going back to school this September, but instead will be home educated. While home schooling has its origins in parents wanting to provide religious instruction to their children, the movement is growing by 7 percent to 15 percent per year, according to Brian Ray, the president of the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Ore., as more Americans with different ideologies choose to educate their children as they see fit.
Passing on Values
“Home educators aim to create an education in which the parents’ values and beliefs are passed on in an easy way that the factory school model cannot deliver,” says Mark Hegener, publisher of Home Education Magazine, of Tonasket, Wash.
Religion, however, is still the main impetus for home schooling. Currently, some 75 percent of home schoolers are Christians who “consciously and conscientiously want to promote their own values,” says Ray.
The increase in the size of the American-born Muslim population in this country, the rigorous demands of the faith and the difficulty for public schools to accommodate the needs of the religion, all help to explain the rise in home schooling among Muslims, proponents say.
Experts estimate that Islam is the fourth largest religious group in the United States today and by 2010 may displace Judaism, the third largest group which today represents 2 percent of the population. Protestants currently comprise 58 percent of America and Catholics, 26 percent.
Scott Sommerville, staff attorney for the Home School Legal Defense Association, in Purcellville, Va.. says only about 5,000 Muslim home schoolers exist now, but predicts their numbers will double every year over the next eight years. Barring the implementation of a nationwide school voucher system — which would convert state and local education dollars into individual scholarship certificates for parents to spend at schools of their choosing — he believes 60,000 Muslim children will be learning at home by 2010.
“There’s a growing need to teach moral values and conduct to Muslim school children,”says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Committee on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington, D.C. “That’s traditionally what has happened in the Christian community.”
Keeping Customs While Educating
Value clashes with the public school system spurred Saleem to home schooling. “The public school system is not accommodating to Muslims,”says Saleem.“Especially around puberty, there are a lot of tenets that they have to adhere to, and interaction between boys and girls is greatly frowned upon.”
Further, Islam requires its practitioners pray five times a day, which means interrupting the school schedule, and emphasizes modesty.
“The girls get a lot of flack from their peers for having to cover up funny and boys sometimes try to pull off their covering,” explains Saleem. She says teachers sometimes penalize girls who are quiet in class, unaware that in conservative Muslim families they are taught not to speak in mixed sex society.
Additionally, Muslim school children cannot always participate in seemingly harmless school activities such as raffles and, eventually, as Muslim home-schooling mom Cynthia Sulaiman puts it, all the explaining to teachers and school officials gets to be tedious. She opted out before it became a big issue, saying,. “I could see [trouble] coming.”
An Attleboro, Mass. resident, Sulaiman has been educating her four children, at home for five years now. She is the founder of the Muslim Home School Network Resource — another Web site offering Muslim home schooling parents advice, assistance and support on home educating the Islamic way.
“You have to know your limits,” Sulaiman explains, adding that she only teaches at home until the eighth grade. Her eldest daughter now attends a private high school. The younger children are still at home with her, and their curriculum includes Koran, the Islamic holy book, along with the usual math, science, reading, writing, geography, and her family’s favorite, history. Their schedule varies, depending on what extracurricular activities are planned on a given day.
Like many home schoolers, Muslim home-school children are often very involved in extracurricular activities. The Sulaiman children all take swim classes and Tae Kwan Do, the boys are on a local football team and are involved in gaming clubs, and their mother says they are well-adjusted. “My kids are for the most part more enjoyable than kids who come to the house to play,” she says. “They are known for being ‘good kids’ in the neighborhood.”
Because home schooling laws and requirements vary from state to state, and every family is individual, each home schooler does it differently. Many Muslim moms have turned to the Internet for help in deciding exactly how to go about teaching their children. They chat online, exchanging curriculum and activity ideas, as well as their fears and hopes about the responsibility they have taken on.
“We live in a society that holds us accountable, so I would not put my family in a situation that would stunt their growth,” says Saleem, who follows a mixed curriculum. But she knows some American Muslims who feel so grossly misunderstood that they abandon American education altogether, basing their curriculums exclusively on studies from the Koran and other classical Arabic texts.
Others, however, receive material from the local schools and censor what they consider blasphemous. “No one is unified on what approach to take,” says Saleem.
Opinions Differ on Results
Home-schooling advocate Ray is not certain method matters. “Not matter how you cut it, slice it or dice it, research shows home school kids are doing better [than their private and public school peers],” he says. In fact, a new three-year study out of the University of Durham in Scotland shows home-educated children significantly out performed their school contemporaries in literacy, mathematics and social skills. The top three finishers at the national spelling bee this year were educated at home.
The national teachers’ union disagrees. In 1999, the National Education Association issued a home-schooling resolution, stating, “The NEA believes that home schooling programs cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience.” Association spokespeople refused further comment. The U.S. Department of Education also refused to comment on this story.
Ray says homeschoolers — whether New Age or conservative Muslim — also tend to face a lot of resistance from relatives, friends and neighbors.
But Fatima Saleem is not answering to her neighbors, and she doesn’t want her child lost to the secularism that rules this society. She does, however, want him to succeed, and expresses a sentiment many parents, regardless of their religion, likely share, “We’re just trying to fit the pieces in a huge puzzle. We’re all caught in the dilemma of what to do with our children.”