A decade ago, when I took on the role of principal of Muslim Community Center Academy, an Islamic parochial school in the north suburbs of Chicago, I needed a window into the soul of the school. I knew if I asked the graduating 8th graders how they felt, I could glean some pretty raw information about the school’s culture. Kids are the most honest critics, so as expected, they didn’t hold back.
Among these students with one foot out the schoolhouse door, the prevailing sentiment was: “We can’t wait to graduate!” When I probed a little further, it was clear they were bored by what the school offered beyond the academic curriculum. They felt disconnected from the staff and each other. My first priority was to shatter this disenchantment.
While a large part of my focus as the principal has been on continuing to improve the school through a stronger curriculum, better technology, and career-developing opportunities for teachers, I’ve made it a priority to address the less obvious—but equally important—need for a cultural shift within the school.
Now one of the largest Islamic K-8 schools in the country (out of more than 200 total), MCCA has seen its enrollment balloon from 185 students to nearly 650 across two neighboring campuses in the years since I joined the school. Our basic-skills-test scores now average in the top 15th percentile among both private and public schools, according to the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Despite our academic success, what matters most for our parents is building students’ character and establishing a sense of community.
When you send your child to a parochial school, you expect, as a parent, that child not only to learn the tenets of his or her faith, but also to develop good values and morals. Obviously, this is not just a parochial or independent school goal. Public school administrators also recognize the important role they play in helping students develop as principled, caring, and concerned individuals.
Growing up as a minority-group member with immigrant parents in the Chicago public school system, I was absolutely affected by the teachers and programs put in place to keep kids like me on the grid. My passion for mentoring youths is modeled after the incredible teachers who helped me to feel as though I belonged. They steered me toward healthy, energizing activities.
Since joining MCCA, I’ve worked with an amazing staff to come up with incentives and programs to build character and foster community among our students. We find ways for kids to be leaders, to build their self-confidence, and to model good behavior for other students.
Middle school students meet weekly in mixed-age groups to work on projects and discuss social issues alongside a teacher mentor. Younger kids gain confidence in working with older peers, while older peers learn mentoring skills. Before graduating, each of our 8th graders has the confidence-building experience of writing and presenting a short sermon to the entire school—teachers and students—about an Islamic value or theme. Listening to older kids promoting good behavior and positive values makes a lasting and motivating impression on young students.
Education Week Commentary invited school leaders from across the country to write about their biggest professional challenges and how they manage them. The package also includes audio slideshows, in which each of the four principals discusses what he or she would most like policymakers to know about the job.
This special section is supported by a grant from The Wallace Foundation. Education Week retained sole editorial control over the content of this package; the opinions expressed are the authors’ own, however.
We have a daily assembly where each day a new child in 1st through 5th grade will lead the closing prayer, giving each child the chance to be a leader. Teachers express their respect by shaking hands with the kids as they leave assembly. We help our students connect to their peers with a program that gives each student an entire week to showcase his or her talents and interests, at the end of which their peers offer the “star” student words of encouragement.
We also have a “Caught Ya Doing Good” program, in which both students and faculty members can recognize one another for services big and small, letting kids see adults held to the same high standards we are asking them to live by. And every month, our school counselors work to incorporate a different value into activities to get our kids thinking about new ideals.
Beginning in 4th grade, our students also do service projects in the broader community and participate in interfaith programs. For instance, in the Chicago-based Poetry Pals—a cross-cultural student poetry exchange—our 4th graders meet monthly with students from local Jewish and Christian faith-based schools to create poetry that is both an expression of their common values and an opportunity to proudly share their own faith.
Over the years, we’ve significantly increased the number of after-school activities to show kids school is a place for fun, as well as learning.
On a personal level, I make it a point to meet two new students each day. I’ll stop by the lunchroom or the field during recess just to chat for a few minutes with a student I haven’t connected with before. These personal interactions are still my favorite source for measuring how well we are doing in creating a positive, engaging culture.
In fact, I still meet with each of our 8th graders over lunch in my office before they graduate. True to form, these kids share their honest thoughts. While I see a lot of excitement about new adventures that await, their happiness is now complemented by a great reverence for the time they’ve spent here.
I’m thankful we seem to have found the equilibrium to live up to both parts of our school motto: “Building Character and Developing Minds.”
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2015 edition of Education Week as I Prioritize Community-Building