An Islamic Oasis: Private Virginia Academy Schools Students in the Teaching of the Koran

By Lambert, Kenneth | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 14, 1999 | Go to article overview

An Islamic Oasis: Private Virginia Academy Schools Students in the Teaching of the Koran


Lambert, Kenneth, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The students wear American school uniforms. Skirts are pressed, and ties are striped. Some boys sport sneakers blaring "Tommy Hilfiger," while others wear sweaters that advertise Calvin Klein jeans.

It could be an ordinary American private school - but for a few striking differences. Boys and girls cannot mix after the second grade. Visitors must surrender their driver's licenses to a security guard at the front entrance after passing through a metal detector. Parents must drive through two checkpoints to pick up their children - a process that sometimes can take half an hour. School grounds are guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and schoolchildren are dismissed an hour early for Ramadan, a month of fasting for Muslims.

The Islamic traditions and strict security offer a safe harbor for the nearly 1,000 children attending the Islamic Saudi Academy, which is located along a busy stretch of strip malls and car dealerships on Richmond Highway south of Alexandria. The school looks unassuming - it is located in a building that once housed Mount Vernon High School.

"It is a unique school by its curriculum, its environment, its structure of different backgrounds of teachers here. All the staff here is like one family," says Sultan Iqab, who teaches Islamic studies and has a child in second grade at the school.

The academy, which has two campuses, spans prekindergarten through 12th grade. The upper school on Richmond Highway includes grades two through 12 while the lower school, which is located on Popes Head Road in Fairfax, offers prekindergarten through first grade. About a third of the students are American citizens.

"We consider [the students] our kids," says Monerah M. Al-Angary, principal of the girls school and lower school. She and her husband, Saad Al-Adwani, founded the academy in 1984 to provide a "pure education" for the local Arab community. Students study the Koran and traditions of Islamic culture in addition to the curriculum required by the Fairfax County school system.

Mrs. Al-Angary says the mission of the academy is to give each child "discipline, love, values . . . security." The school sets high academic standards for its students, and last year all 64 seniors went to college, she says. Destinations included American University, University of Virginia, Georgetown and Boston University, among others.

Besides its emphasis on academic rigor, the academy also stresses respect for family and religion, says Sulaiman Nasser Al-Fraih, deputy director general of the school. He says American schools offer children "too much freedom," which can make it difficult for families that want to preserve traditional values. A TRADITIONAL APPROACH

Those values emphasize both religious studies and adherence to cultural practices, such as not dating in the high school years. Students pray between classes as part of the daily routine, which includes three hours of Islamic and Arabic studies a day.

Children are held to a high standard of behavior. Teachers are given the proper respect, and students quickly correct any slips in behavior. On a recent visit, David Kovalik, an English teacher, reminds a boy to tuck in his shirt - a repeated offense would bring a demerit. The boy complies without a complaint.

Being rebellious isn't a badge of honor like it is in American school culture, says Mr. Kovalik, adding that the academy reminds him of his Catholic school upbringing, except here there is no corporal punishment. "In this culture, loss of face is very important," he says. At the academy, older boys are humiliated when they get in trouble and must work to win back the respect of the younger boys.

But there is still room for fun. During a change in classes, 20 third-grade girls spill out into a hallway and rush up and hug Widad Ramahi, a popular Arabic teacher.

"She's like our mother," yells a girl. …

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