NPR’s Tom Gjelten recently reported on two separate but related stories of faith-based schools that are explicit about their goal of educating students in an observant religious environment.
The Al Fatih Academy in Reston, Virginia, is a joint elementary and middle Islamic school founded in 1999 “to cultivate and nurture a thriving American Muslim identity that balances religious, academic and cultural knowledge and imparts the importance of civic involvement and charitable work.” As Gjelten reports, teachers there combine traditional subjects like social studies and math with classes on the Arabic language and the Quran. Students are taught the Muslim faith in an integrated way—looking at the “aesthetic dimension, the spiritual dimension, [as well as] the ethical and moral,” according to the executive director of the Council for American Private Education Joe McTighe. Al Fatih is one of about three hundred Islamic schools in America, serving the fastest growing religious group in the country.
Gjelten’s other report tells of St. Jerome Academy, a Catholic parochial school in Hyattsville, Maryland, that serves a conservative base of families looking for an environment that “make[s] the faith real in […] everyday lives,” according to one parent. Built around the close-knit Catholic community in tiny Hyattsville (population 17,000), St Jerome’s features a classical curriculum that emphasizes canonical Western civilization classes, including biblical studies and the history of Christianity. The school has become so popular that some parents have moved into Hyattsville specifically to enroll their children there: “By word of mouth people heard about it and came here because of the heightened community life,” says one parent who also serves as director of advancement at St Jerome’s.
Gjelten’s twin reports highlight a common fact: both these schools see themselves as deliberate faith communities dedicated to their particular traditions and identities, but nevertheless engaged in and open to the wider world.
At Al Fatih, students are exposed to Christian and Jewish theology by Christians and Jews; they are encouraged to become engaged politically, for instance by writing to their Senators; and they are made to think about and discuss the actions of Islamic terrorists, and how such people affect Americans’ conceptions of Islam. At St. Jerome’s, the Catholic families there have hardly retreated from the culture, as many are engaged professionally, politically, and civically in the wider community. One parent told NPR that, “living in this community has strengthened my faith so that I can go out to the wider community, the secular community, and talk with confidence about my faith.” One eighth grader from Al Fatih echoed this sentiment when asked how the school had prepared her for entering public high school: “Here we learn to be ourselves and we go off to public school where we can be ourselves with other people.”
“Being ourselves with other people” seems a decent enough working definition of American culture, and it is from schools like St. Jerome’s and Al Fatih that vibrant citizenship can most often emerge. At a time when civil society can seem a safe space for beleaguered cultural or religious conservatives, these two communities offer a bold model for an engaged, joyful, and remarkably self-confident style of cultural participation.