Cilia Ndiaye vividly remembers her parents’ worries that she was suffering in public school because of her Muslim faith. Fellow students, she said, would mock her and tear off her hijab, the head scarf worn for modesty.
“We were called Nazis,” she says.
Her parents’ solution — to home-school their daughter — was a radical step in 1987, but one that a rising number of Muslim-Americans are embracing today, shaking off the stigma that taking their children out of the public school system would increase the community’s isolation and cultural distance from the American mainstream.
“It was considered irresponsible and stupid” in 1987, Ms. Ndiaye said, but the experience was so positive for her that the Maryland woman now home-schools her own six children, who range in age from 1½ to 12.
A minority within a minority, Ms. Ndiaye said the number of Muslim home-schoolers is growing, as are the support networks, conferences and faith-oriented curriculum to support the community. In its most recent statistics, the Department of Education put the number of home-schooled elementary and high school students in 2007 at about 1.5 million.
Brian D. Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute estimates that Christian students, Protestant and Roman Catholic, make up the vast majority of all home-schooled children, while the research-based data on Muslim home-schoolers amounts to “slim to none.”
But he said the anecdotal evidence within the home-schooling community suggests that the stigmas of the mid-1980s for Muslim home-schoolers no longer apply.
“Discussion with home-school leaders across the nation indicates that the number of Muslims in home-schooling is expanding relatively quickly, compared with other groups,” said Mr. Ray, who speculated that part of the rise could be attributed to the growth — and increased confidence — of the American Muslim population in general.
Some still worry that the increasing numbers of Muslim home-schoolers — an option that a number of families who recently emigrated to the United States have chosen — is a double-edged phenomenon for a community that faces questions and challenges about fitting in with American life and culture.
Research suggests that home-schoolers more than hold their own academically, even accounting for income and other factors, but that the movement has faced criticism as well as praise. Home-schoolers have included NFL quarterback Tim Tebow and Adam Gadahn, the Islamic convert from rural California who is now the highest-ranking American in al Qaeda.
Dr. Faheem Younus, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, said home-schooling for first-generation immigrants often impedes their assimilation into American society. Parents often are hesitant to send their children to public schools, where teachings can run contrary to Islamic belief. He said deciding to home-school often comes down to how to instill “family values.”
“If you are trying to shield your child from society, good luck,” he said.
Building a lesson plan
Sensing a need, Ms. Ndiaye created a home-schooling curriculum 10 years ago to help Muslim parents teach Islamic studies. Although she doesn’t know exactly how many copies of her curriculum are being sold, she says it’s in the thousands. She sells her materials around the world.
For example, she created a coloring book for younger students to learn the English alphabet with a story of animals gathering from around the world bringing food to an Eid al-Adha celebration (a feast day at the end of Hajj, Muslims‘ annual pilgrimage).
The page for “E” shows three eggplants and the phrase, “Every elegant elephant from Egypt attended the Eid day ball, and brought enough enormous eggplants to last until fall.”
Ms. Ndiaye puts her materials online free of charge because she sees a demand and knows some people cannot afford to buy her curriculum.
“I personally view it as an obligation to God,” she said.
Even then, 50 percent of her daily emails are from people asking her to develop new materials. “There is no way to meet the need,” she said.
At first, Ms. Ndiaye was selling her material to individual families. In the past few years, however, groups of home-schoolers have created larger family collectives to purchase her lesson plans.
Ms. Ndiaye said the more religious a Muslim family is, and the greater their concern is with public schools’ effect on their children, the more likely they are to send their children to an Islamic school or educate them at home.
In 2004, Sarah Yazback, who has a master’s degree in education psychology, started her own online group, Muslims Educating Children at Home, which has grown to 150 members from around the United States and the world.
The Germantown mother home-schools her five children, ranging in age from 6 months to 12 years. She said she lets her children’s own interests dictate the lesson plans, calling her approach “very much child-led.”
This also means giving her children different paths to learning. Her house has about 7,000 books — about 2,500 of them children’s books — workbooks, games and a “big outdoors, which is very critical,” she said.
She sees most fellow Muslim home-schoolers in the area as well-educated. They have college and graduate degrees, and even the younger women aspire to work toward their degrees.
She sees the recent growth of home-schooling as a result of the assimilation of immigrants into the culture. Often in the countries from which recent U.S. Muslim immigrants came, home-schooling was not legal. When they settled in America, they — and their children — were abruptly introduced to new ideas, social practices and cultural expectations, but the idea of private education was a big step.
“You need a few decades for anything to spread to the minority population,” she said.
She has seen this idea in her group when it comes to alternative medicine. Many immigrants arrive with traditional views of medicine, she said, and it takes awhile for them to realize there are other options.
Teaching a way to live
Ms. Yazback sees her home-school practices in the same way Islam guides the way they live their lives.
She encourages her children to learn Arabic so they can read the Koran in its original language. For that, they have a master Arabic teacher.
Teaching them about Islam, spending time to teach the way to live — “we should do that whether we were home-schoolers or not,” she said.
Many Muslim parents seek a structured, morally based education for their children, even if it is not based on Islam.
“There are Muslim families that would feel more safe sending their children to a Christian school than a public school,” she said.
Ms. Ndiaye said that the Muslim home-school movement is still in its “infancy,” following the path blazed by evangelical Christian practitioners, who make up more than 70 percent of the U.S. home-school population.
Home-schoolers in general tend to excel academically, performing 15 to 30 percentile points higher on standardized tests than students in public schools, according to National Home Education Research Institute.
“The Muslims looked at that and said, ‘We can do those same things,’ ” she said.