Muslims craft their own curriculum

Fears about safety and extremism add to parents' desire to home-school their children

Every morning, Fatima Saleem's two children get up and go to school at the kitchen table in their Columbia, S.C., home.

In between math, social studies, and English, their mother - who doubles as their teacher - mixes in lessons in Arabic and Islamic studies.

The Saleem family is part of a small but growing number of American Muslims opting to teach their children at home. As do home schoolers of other faiths, Ms. Saleem says teaching her children herself ensures they absorb a strong religious identity.

But since Sept. 11, she says, a newer set of fears is pushing Muslim parents toward home-schooling: Concerns about their children's safety in public schools and, on the flip side, the possibility that they'll be exposed to extremist views in private Islamic schools.

"I'm scared for my children," she says. "Any of our children can get caught in someone's rhetoric."

Muslims account for only a fraction of the million-plus children currently home-schooled in the United States. "At this point, it's a phenomenon, not a movement," says Scott Somerville of the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va.

The few thousand Muslim home schoolers include roughly equal numbers of three groups, Mr. Somerville says - Caucasian mothers who converted to Islam after marrying Muslim men, African-American converts, and Muslim immigrants born into the faith.

In a religion where women often play a less dominant role, Somerville says, these mothers may have a stronger influence in shaping this next generation. "Applying this new mode of learning to an old mode of worship may yield unpredictable results," he says.

Why, and how, she teaches at home

Saleem, who converted to Islam as a teenager, says she didn't consider homeschooling until her first child reached school age four years ago.

Most classmates and teachers at her own Pennsylvania school were understanding when she covered her head with a scarf and stopped dating.

But when it came time to enroll her first child in school, Saleem says she wasn't satisfied by either the education offered at local public schools or the new Islamic religious school near her home. The religious school, she says, charged high tuition and employed unproven teachers.

During four and a half hours of instruction each day, Saleem bridges secular and religious subjects. She divides the day up into blocks for each subject. In addition to English and math, her children learn religious principles and ancient Arabic letters needed to read the Koran.

Saleem says she's careful to explain disagreements within Islam and to provide both religious and secular perspectives. Teaching the children herself, however, ensures that an Islamic perspective is not omitted.

During the December holiday season, she included Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, when adherents fast during daylight hours. If the subject of families comes up, she explains the role of mothers and fathers according to Islam.

When her elementary-school-age children reach high school, Saleem says, she won't rule out enrolling them in public school.

For religiously motivated homeschoolers of many faiths, conflicts between secular education and religious beliefs often surface during high school. Science classes emphasize evolution over creationism. Health classes highlight safe sex.

"[Religious students'] special needs are not addressed in public school systems," says Ibrahim Hooper, media director for The Council on American Islamic Relations in Washington. "[Their parents] want to keep them away from negative influences, negative peer pressure."

Saleem says home-schooling became even more attractive after Sept. 11 as Muslim friends and new home schoolers told stories about children having their scarves pulled off in classrooms or encountering hostile teachers.

The risk at private Islamic schools is that teachers may impart ideas that run contrary to her own view of Islam. "You don't want to get caught up in the political issues," Saleem says.

Considering each child's needs

Cynthia Sulaiman of Attleboro, Mass., says she felt comfortable letting her kids learn outside the home as they grew older. Ms. Sulaiman, who converted to Islam after marriage, has home-schooled each of her four children. But her 16-year-old son, who wanted to play football, now attends a public high school, and her middle-school-age child is enrolled in a public charter school.

"We do what's best at the time," Ms. Sulaiman says. Only her youngest son, Imran, is still home-schooled - with academic instruction interspersed with visits to a zoo at a nearby park.

With so few Muslim home schoolers, parents say it can be an isolating and time-consuming experience. Publishers don't yet produce texts or curriculum designed specifically for the Muslim homeschool audience. So parents must develop their own lesson plans, often adapting materials designed for Christian home schoolers.

Muslim home schooling is in the early stages - comparable to the experience of Evangelical Christian home schoolers in the 1970s, says Patricia Lines, a former US Education Department researcher and current fellow at the Discovery Institute think tank in Seattle.

New networks

Parents are just starting to network and help each other design curricula, parents say.

Both Sulaiman and Saleem, for instance, started websites where they share lesson plans with other parents.

Saleem posts Arabic calligraphy lessons on her Palmetto Muslim Homeschool Resource Network (http://www.geocities.com/pmhrn_2000/PMHRN.html). Sulaiman's similarly named Muslim Home School Network and Resource (http://www.muslimhomeschool.com) provides a workbook for students entitled "Proud to be a Muslim." She also offers art projects - how to create, for instance, a craft box for the holiday of Ramadan.

Sulaiman says traffic to the website has increased significantly since Sept. 11. But in addition to attracting other Muslim home schoolers, the site is drawing more anti-Muslim hate mail.

Where e-mails once questioned the wisdom of depriving children of the opportunity to socialize with other types of students, now the stinging comments laud her for keeping "undesirable" children out of public schools.

E-mail sterns@csps.com

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