for The Washington Post on April 1, 2010
Priscilla Martinez, a convert to Islam who is of Mexican descent, helps her daughter Hidayah Jaka, 12, study the Bill of Rights. Martinez home-schools all six of her children, including Mikaeel Jaka, 8 (back).
On a chilly afternoon in western Loudoun County in Washington State, a group of children used tweezers to extract rodent bones from a regurgitated owl pellet. A boy built a Lego launcher. A girl practiced her penmanship. On the wall, placards read, "I fast in Ramadan," "I pay zakat" and "I will go on hajj."
Welcome to Priscilla Martinez's home -- and her children's school, where Martinez is teacher, principal and guidance counselor, and where the credo "Allah created everything" is taught alongside math, grammar and science.
Martinez and her six children, ages 2 to 12, are part of a growing number of Muslims who home-school. In the Washington area, Martinez says, she has seen the number of home-schoolers explode in the past five years.
Although three-quarters of the nation's estimated 2 million home-schoolers identify themselves as Christian, the number of Muslims is expanding "relatively quickly," compared with other groups, said Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute.
They do so, he said, for the same reasons as non-Muslims: "Stronger academics, more family time, they want to guide social interaction, provide a safe place to learn and . . . teach them [their] values, beliefs and worldview."
Parents say it is an attractive alternative to public schools, with whose traditions and values they are not always comfortable, and Islamic schools, which might be too far away, cost too much or lack academic rigor.
If Muslims have come to embrace home schooling later than others, it might be in part because so many Muslims in the United States are immigrants who might not be aware of the option. In fact, for many immigrants, the idea of home schooling runs counter to their reasons for coming to America, which frequently include better educational opportunities. And public school has long been seen as a key portal to assimilation.
When Sanober Yacoob arrived from Pakistan 13 years ago and began to home-school her three children, she was the only immigrant she knew of who was doing so. Others from Muslim countries "thought I was weird," she said. "One of them said to me, 'I hope you're not going to destroy yourself, and they will grow up ignorant.'"
Now, more are following in her footsteps, and many use the highly regarded Calvert curriculum for home-schoolers.
Maqsood and Zakia Khan of Sterling, who emigrated from Pakistan two decades ago, say home schooling has allowed them to enhance and internationalize their children's curriculum. Now, in addition to the standard subjects, their children, ages 15, 14 and 9, study the Koran for a half an hour a day, one-on-one, with a woman who teaches them online from Pakistan.
"If they were going to school, we could never do that," Maqsood Khan said. "You spend any number of hours at school, you're tired, your brain is full and you don't want to spend hours with Islamic studies. But now it's part of their curriculum; we made it part of their time."
The food incident
The Khans decided to home-school four years ago after a kindergarten teacher, unaware of the religious issues, told their son that he could not refuse school food in favor of the Islamic-sanctioned food he had brought from home. The food incident was small, but it highlighted the issues many Muslims say their children face every day as minorities who don't celebrate Christmas, Halloween or birthday parties, who don't eat pork and who fast during Ramadan.
The family did not consider Islamic schools, Zakia Khan said, because "they learn more at home than they learn at school."
By contrast, Abdul Rashid Abdullah of Herndon said he would have considered an Islamic school for his 11-year-old son, who was struggling in public school, if it weren't for the cost.
"My children are extremely aware that they are Muslim, and they are extremely aware that other people aren't," said Abdullah, whose wife, a Malaysian immigrant, started to home-school their son last fall. Two of the couple's younger children, ages 10 and 6, remain in public school; their fourth child is 3. "There is a mainstream culture, and my kids aren't a part of that mainstream culture . . . and to hear, 'We don't do this, we don't do that,' how are they feeling when they're sitting in that chair? Home schooling really takes the pressure off."
Martinez, a convert to Islam who is of Mexican descent and grew up in Texas, said that despite stereotypes of home-schoolers seeking to shut out the world, the point is not to restrict children from mainstream culture so much as to make sure they don't get lost in the shuffle.
"We don't isolate ourselves from the rest of the world and sit here at home just not being attuned to our community and our identity as Americans," she said. "But we're also not sending them to school where generally speaking they would have to leave most of their identity at the door."
There are also religious reasons. "We definitely do learn from a different worldview," she said. "Everything has God as its center. We don't just study the bee, but we study what the Koran says about the bee and the many blessings and the honey. . . . We get religious studies out of it, we get biology out of it and chemistry."
The idea of teaching kids at home has found more acceptance in the Muslim community since Yacoob started doing it. Now, she said, former naysayers congratulate her on her children, who are pursuing college degrees. Her son Saad, now 21 and an English major at George Mason University, managed to memorize the Koran while being home-schooled. "The same person [who once criticized her] stopped me, and he told me, 'We are so proud of Saad!' "
As with home-schoolers of any affiliation, questions arise about socialization. Abdul-Malik Ahmad, a 34-year-old Web developer, was home-schooled in Beltsville in the 1980s and '90s. While he said overall it was a positive experience (he now home-schools his daughter), it had drawbacks.
"There were very few Muslims, and we were very scattered, and the community wasn't as developed as it is now," he said. "So we didn't have a chance to socialize as much as we could have now. It took a while for me to adjust once I got to college."
To ease that transition, some home-schoolers say they plan to send their children to public high school once their characters are more fully formed. "It's not that you don't want them to know the world," said Norlidah Zainal Abidin, Abdullah's wife, "but you want to instill certain values in them first."
Maqsood Khan said his children connect with the outside world through Islamic scouting troops and visits to the mall. "They're typical teens; they listen to the music full blast, but they listen to Islamic music."
His daughter Meena, 15, who attended Sterling Middle School until she completed sixth grade four years ago, was at home recently in a Redskins sweatshirt and black headscarf. She said there were things she missed about public school, including the Harry Potter club.
"I liked going. I got good grades," she said. "But we didn't get enough Islamic studies."
Many home-schoolers seek out social interaction in outside classes or group field trips. On a recent afternoon at the Cascades Library in Sterling, mothers in headscarves dropped off their children at a resource room where Jean McTigue was teaching art to Muslim home-schooled children. As the boys and girls looked at reproductions of Dalis and Goyas, McTigue, whose own children were in the class, said there had not been similar opportunities for her oldest, 15. "When Yusef was 6 years old he would have loved to do something like this, but there was really nothing."
Downstairs, among the waiting mothers, Ayesha Khan said that five years ago her friends and family back in Pakistan had criticized her decision to home-school her children, now 10 and 8. But when they see the children, they are impressed.
"Over there, it's like, 'Wow, your kids are going to American schools,' " she said. "I say, 'Yeah, we are giving our kids an American education.' "