Muslims among those educating children at home

By Michael Paulson, Bostin Globe Staff, 8/2/2000

Once upon a time, immigrant families turned to the public schools to Americanize their children: Teach them English, introduce them to the broader culture, and point them in the direction of the streets paved with gold.

But today, as the melting pot metaphor is eclipsed by multiculturalism, more Americans are rejecting public schools and turning to home schooling in an effort to safeguard their children's cultural and religious identity.

Muslims, one of the United States' fastest-growing populations, are following the lead of other groups, including evangelical Christians, in opting out of American public schools.

"They're growing up as Americans, and they have to integrate, but we want them to keep their Islamic identity intact and not have it washed away or assaulted," said Beverly Beresford, 36, a Muslim mother of three from Billerica who is teaching her children at home.

The surge in home schooling is part of a broader trend in which many Americans driven by moral as well as educational concerns are choosing religious, charter, and pilot schools for their children. For some, it's a development that raises fundamental, even troubling, questions about the future of public education.

"We are living at a time in which the schools are under attack, and people are seeking alternatives," said Arthur E. Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University.

"The nature of socialization has also changed," he said. "Once the hope of people entering was that they would become Americanized and indistinct from the pack. Now we're having a battle over how much we want in common and how much we want to be different."

Muslim home schoolers scoff at the suggestion that their children might somehow be isolated from the larger culture because they are home schooled. Their children play in sports leagues with non-Muslim children, go on field trips with non-Muslim children, meet with non-Muslim home schoolers, and are inundated with mainstream American culture, they say.

"We're not trying to withdraw or create a shell - that's unrealistic and unfair to the children," Beresford said.

The challenge, Beresford and other parents say, is communicating Islamic faith, history, and values to children in the face of the broader, more dominant culture.

"Muslims are a new, emerging community, and a number of them are not happy with the public schooling system, either because they feel that the schools are not really teaching their kids right or they object that they are not paying attention to moral issues," said Aly Abuzaakouk, director of the American Muslim Council, who said education is the top concern of Muslims in America. "There is a secular turn in public schooling that Muslim families are not happy with, and some of those who are not able to join Muslim schools do home schooling."

The Muslim home schooling movement resembles, and in some ways piggybacks on, the wider home schooling movement popularized by evangelical Christians since the 1980s. The Christian home schoolers cite many of the same reasons as Muslims - a desire to inculcate their children with values and behavioral norms that are off-limits in public schools.

"If a person has a strong belief in the area of religion, they're going to want to pass it on to their children, and the only effective way is to teach them at home," said Michael Smith, president of the Home School

Legal Defense Association.

The organization estimates that 1.7 million American youngsters are now home schooled - a number contested as too high by some - and although the majority are thought to be white evangelical Protestants with highly educated parents, Smith said his group is seeing rapid growth in home schooling among other religious groups, such as Muslims and Catholics.

But for American Muslims - an ethnically diverse and fast-growing group whose population is estimated to be 6 million to 7 million - it is not yet clear whether home schooling will be a permanent part of the landscape or a temporary phenomenon until the community builds more private schools. Already there are two Muslim grade schools in Greater Boston, the Al-Hamra Academy in Northborough and the Islamic Academy of New England in Sharon.

There are no statistics about the numbers of Muslim home schoolers in this country, but it is clear that most Muslims still send their children to public schools and depend on weekend Islamic schools for religious instruction.

Nevertheless, there are several organizations devoted to the topic, including the Muslim Home School Network (, which is hosting a home schooling convention in Sharon on Saturday and Sunday.

The group is directed by Cynthia Sulaiman, an Attleboro mother of four, who started her eldest children in public schools but then decided to teach her family at home.

Like Sulaiman, Beresford sent her eldest son to public school for a year before deciding to try home schooling. "Our local school is quite good, but we felt that because in Islam, you want to integrate religion into all aspects of life, we could achieve that better by home schooling," she said.

Beresford and Sulaiman teach their children at home for some of the same reasons cited by other home schooling parents: a desire for safety, a concern about the secular nature of public schools, and a hope their children will do better with individual attention. But they have other, less familiar concerns: They want their children to pray five times a day, they want their daughters to be able to cover their heads without fear of teasing, and they don't want boys mixing socially with girls.

They teach the basics - reading, writing, and mathematics - alongside Islamic history, culture, and religion.

Beresford and Sulaiman are both converts to Islam who married immigrants from Islamic countries. Scholars say home schooling has been particularly popular among American Muslim families in which at least one parent was born in the United States, perhaps because the home schooling phenomenon is most familiar to Americans.

"There are more parents who want to do it, but feel they are not equipped, and those who are equipped are often African-American or Euro-American Muslims," said Shabbir Mansuri, executive director of the Council on Islamic Education, a California-based organization that works to improve and expand the depiction of Islam and Muslims in textbooks.

Variations of home schooling, such as groups of families teaching together, have been popular particularly among African-American Muslims, said Ilyas Ba-Yunus, a sociologist at State University of New York at Cortland. "Many of these people are new converts who are very unhappy with the drugs and guns and dating and sex that they consider to be un-Islamic," Ba-Yunus said. "They think their own teaching at home will be morally strong, and that they will be able to counter whatever immoral things are happening in school. They're not always successful, but this is their logic."


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