The students wear American school uniforms. Skirts are pressed, and ties are striped. Some boys sport sneakers blaring “Tommy Hilfiger,” while others wear sweaters that advertise Calvin Klein jeans.
It could be an ordinary American private school but for a few striking differences. Boys and girls cannot mix after the second grade. Visitors must surrender their driver’s licenses to a security guard at the front entrance after passing through a metal detector. Parents must drive through two checkpoints to pick up their children a process that sometimes can take half an hour. School grounds are guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and schoolchildren are dismissed an hour early for Ramadan, a month of fasting for Muslims.
The Islamic traditions and strict security offer a safe harbor for the nearly 1,000 children attending the Islamic Saudi Academy, which is located along a busy stretch of strip malls and car dealerships on Richmond Highway south of Alexandria, Va. The school looks unassuming it is located in a building that once housed Mount Vernon High School.
“It is a unique school by its curriculum, its environment, its structure of different backgrounds of teachers here. All the staff here is like one family,” says Sultan Iqab, who teaches Islamic studies and has a child in second grade at the school.
The academy, which has two campuses, spans prekindergarten through 12th grade. The upper school on Richmond Highway includes grades two through 12 while the lower school, which is located on Popes Head Road in Fairfax, offers prekindergarten through first grade. About a third of the students are American citizens.
“We consider [the students] our kids,” says Monerah M. Al-Angary, principal of the girls school and lower school. She and her husband, Saad Al-Adwani, founded the academy in 1984 to provide a “pure education” for the local Arab community. Students study the Koran and traditions of
Islamic culture in addition to the curriculum required by the Fairfax County school system.
Mrs. Al-Angary says the mission of the academy is to give each child “discipline, love, values … security.” The school sets high academic standards for its students, and last year all 64 seniors went to college, she says. Destinations included American University, University of Virginia, Georgetown and Boston University, among others.
Besides its emphasis on academic rigor, the academy also stresses respect for family and religion, says Sulaiman Nasser Al-Fraih, deputy director general of the school. He says American schools offer children “too much freedom,” which can make it difficult for families that want to preserve traditional values.
Those values emphasize both religious studies and adherence to cultural practices, such as not dating in the high school years. Students pray between classes as part of the daily routine, which includes three hours of Islamic and Arabic studies a day.
Children are held to a high standard of behavior. Teachers are given the proper respect, and students quickly correct any slips in behavior. On a recent visit, David Kovalik, an English teacher, reminds a boy to tuck in his shirt a repeated offense would bring a demerit. The boy complies without a complaint.
Being rebellious isn’t a badge of honor like it is in American school culture, says Mr. Kovalik, adding that the academy reminds him of his Catholic school upbringing, except here there is no corporal punishment. “In this culture, loss of face is very important,” he says. At the academy, older boys are humiliated when they get in trouble and must work to win back the respect of the younger boys.
But there is still room for fun. During a change in classes, 20 third-grade girls spill out into a hallway and rush up and hug Widad Ramahi, a popular Arabic teacher.
“She’s like our mother,” yells a girl. The teacher wears the pile of girls around her like a skirt, pleading with them to shush. But she can’t control them and gives in, throwing her head back in a laugh. Finally, she corrals them back into the classroom. Quiet replaces the bedlam as another lesson begins.
The academy’s English/Arabic program is so coveted by Arab parents that the wait list to attend is years long. School officials are hoping to expand on a piece of property in Loudoun County, although the project is on hold for the moment until financing is secured.
Some Loudoun county residents opposed the school’s estimated $40 million project, fearing that it would create traffic problems and be a target for terrorists.
School officials and Saudi Embassy security have long worried about drawing too much attention to the academy, which has several members of the Saudi royal family attending, as well as 1,000 children whose heritage is linked to 27 Mideast countries.
The school employs a private firm, Vance Security, to screen outsiders who visit the academy. At least six guards are posted on each campus, with a smaller staff when school is in recess. The Saudi Embassy supervises all security operations and works with State Department officers for major school events such as graduations.
Security may be one feature that makes the school appealing to even non-Muslim parents looking to broaden their child’s view of the world by putting them in an Islamic program.
Mr. Al-Fraih says children of other religions may attend the school but are never identified by religion to the rest of the school population. It does not matter what religion a child is, he says, as long as the parents are willing to have their child study Islamic law.
In keeping with Islamic culture, which segregates the sexes, the academy separates boys and girls starting in third grade. There is no mixing during lunches, recesses or even field trips.
Library time is planned so girls and boys do not meet. A large sign is posted at a library entrance on girls’ side of the school that states: “Boys are not allowed to open these doors.” The message is written in English, Arabic and French. A similar warning is on the boy’s side in the gym.
The library filters out potential violations of chastity in written materials. For example, a Newsweek magazine in the school’s library is missing some details in a photograph accompanying a story on a woman undergoing cosmetic surgery. The woman’s legs and buttocks, seen in profile, are filled in with black ink.
The American concept of dating doesn’t exist within the walls of the academy. “It is forbidden for boys and girls. The culture doesn’t accept this,” Mr. Al-Fraih says. For most students, this rule simply reflects the teachings in the Koran.
“Let’s say if you have a good [grade-point average] and then when you are a teen-ager you get to know about girls and stuff,” says Sultan Al-Khodair, 16, a junior from Saudi Arabia on a diplomatic mission to the United States with his parents. “You start to go out and leave school behind.”
Other students such as Abdullah Kandil, a 16-year-old born in Boston, says dating sometimes can happen outside of school. But he also acknowledges he is of Egyptian decent, and Saudis may have a more conservative, chaste view.
Most of the students are intent on getting a good education. Marriage plans are part of a future beyond high school and, most likely, college. Ashraf Ali, a senior who was born in Washington and has attended the academy since second grade, says he is confident about leaving the school and heading into the world of college, adulthood and others’ occasional ignorance about his beliefs.
“They gave us the tools we needed,” he says of the academy. A classmate, Abdalilah Owaishiz, echoes this, saying he feels confident about venturing out into a world with less structure. “My education here has been a privilege.”
Abdalilah is not worried about potential prejudice he may encounter once he leaves the school. He says the Koran has taught him how to be patient and understanding. If faced with an intolerant college roommate, the senior says, “I would show him how nice we are. I would educate him.”