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. (MORE)