Opinion
School Choice & Charters Commentary

Building Community, One Student at a Time

By Habeeb Quadri — November 10, 2015 4 min read

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.

Habeeb Quadri, the principal of Muslim Community Center Academy, shakes hands with students following afternoon prayers at the school's Morton Grove, Ill., campus.

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.

First grader Mohamed Laliwala works on his spelling at the school's campus in Skokie, Ill.

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.

v35 12WallaceComm TheChallengesOfSchoolLeadership

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.

Read more from the package.

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.”

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter.
A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2015 edition of Education Week as I Prioritize Community-Building

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Building Leadership Excellence Through Instructional Coaching
Join this webinar for a discussion on instructional coaching and ways you can link your implement or build on your program.
Content provided by Whetstone Education/SchoolMint
Teaching Webinar Tips for Better Hybrid Learning: Ask the Experts What Works
Register and ask your questions about hybrid learning to our expert panel.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Families & the Community Webinar
Family Engagement for Student Success With Dr. Karen Mapp
Register for this free webinar to learn how to empower and engage families for student success featuring Karen L. Mapp.
Content provided by Panorama Education & PowerMyLearning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Director PEAK Academy Hapeville campus
Hapeville, Georgia, United States
Camelot Education
Technology Product Manager
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Camelot Education
2021-2022 Teacher (Districtwide)
Dallas, TX, US
Dallas Independent School District
[2021-2022] Founding Middle School Academic Dean
New York, NY, US
DREAM Charter School

Read Next

School Choice & Charters COVID-19 May Energize Push for School Choice in States. Where That Leads Is Unclear
The pandemic is driving legislators' interest in mechanisms like education savings accounts, but the growth may not be straightforward.
8 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State address before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature on Jan. 12 at the statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State address to state lawmakers on Jan. 12. She's pushing a major school choice expansion.
Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register via AP
School Choice & Charters Letter to the Editor Are NOLA Charters a Mixed Bag?
To the Editor:
The opinion essay by Douglas N. Harris about how New Orleans’ education reforms post-Katrina are relevant to the COVID-19 era (“As Schools Recover After COVID-19, Look to New Orleans,” Sept. 30, 2020) highlights some basic improvements in the NOLA system but downplays the most significant aspects of those changes: the impact on people of color.
1 min read
School Choice & Charters Home Schooling Is Way Up With COVID-19. Will It Last?
The shift could have lasting effects on both public schools and the home-schooling movement.
10Homeschool IMG
RyanJLane/E+
School Choice & Charters Opinion Challenging 3 Common Critiques of School Choice
A new volume from Corey DeAngelis and Neal McCluskey challenges some of the familiar but suspect assertions that pepper public debates about school choice.
3 min read