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Islamic school offers students sanctuary (9/20/2005)
The Arizona Republic
Sept. 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Read news on Arizona Chinese News

The Arizona Cultures Academy was supposed to make a big splash in 2001 as a private school that met the needs of Muslim parents who wanted to raise their children with a strong faith in a non-Muslim society.

Then the tragic events of 9/11 stole the school's thunder, but it quietly opened and flourished. It has grown on the eastern edge of South Mountain, just off of Baseline Road, with its demand for excellence and hard work of its students in academic, Islamic and behavioral education.

The tiny campus is already making its mark at Valley academic contests such as the local Future Cities Competition. A group of students from the academy designed a "floating city" that would withstand a tsunami for this year's contest and won an award.

The Arizona Cultures Academy is one of several Islam-based schools in the Valley and growing at a quick pace. Its students come from all around the region and represent a number of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. What's important to them and their families is a solid education with a Muslim grounding.

The 5-acre campus caters to students such as Israa Alsayyed, who formerly attended a Valley elementary school in Peoria. The 10th-grader, who listens to alternative music and whose homeland is Palestine, felt out of place among friends and classmates.

She remembered peers who looked at her ritual fast as odd and chalked it up to a desire to stop eating.

"I like the way you don't have to deal with things teens go through," said Alsayyed. "Here (at Arizona Cultures), you are around your religion. Here, people are from the same religion as you."

Today the 15-year-old is a top student in a quiet and small learning environment. Alsayyed, who loves history, also receives more attention from teachers with her lessons. There are about 1.1 billion Muslims worldwide with an estimated 100,000 Muslims in the Valley.

"It's something like a private school for Catholics, and students here experience the Islam environment," explained Fawzia Tung, ACA principal/teacher.

Arabic is taught

The curriculum includes English and Arabic languages, a religion class, social studies, science, math, computer lessons and physical education. Sometimes students hike the vast South Mountain in their physical education class.

The pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade school was financed and chartered by a group of Valley Muslims and opened its doors in August 2001. It gained its standing with the North Central Association and the Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement and costs $6,000 annually per student.

Principal Tung said she knows of many parents of students like Alsayyed who share similar sentiments and experiences at public schools. Some have complained about a lack of space and privacy to pray on public school property or felt too ashamed to pray.

The Arizona Cultures Academy added 50 new students in August to bring its enrollment to 150.

Tung, a native of Taiwan who graduated from the Faculty of Medicine from the University of Jordan, brought her broad experience as an educator to the academy in 2002. She staffed her campus with top-notch educators from around the world and implemented a rigorous curriculum using education programs from around the world to enhance students' learning.

Rueyin Chiou, a first- and second-grade teacher, delivers a lesson called "mental math." Students learn number digits by hand and begin counting on the thumb of their right hand and graduate to a calculating device called an abacus.

"The objective is, after 18 months, they have these kids doing division, four digits by two digits, just like that," Tung explained, snapping her finger to show how quickly first-graders pick up math. "First they use their fingers, then they move onto the abacus, then they take away the abacus and they visualize in their heads."

Global background

Tung is the daughter of a French diplomat, speaks four languages and worked in psychiatry in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where she created a Chinese community school. She got involved in education after she married, had kids and moved to the United States in 1995. She home schooled her children.

At Cultures, she also added a discipline program for students. Part of the program requires each class to select a leader to thank the teacher for his or her time before they exit a class.

"I am maybe braver than most in curriculum planning and implementation, and more ambitious in terms of achievement," she said. "I believe that character and spiritual education is a part and a parcel of the whole child."

Several doors down from Chiu's classroom is Omar Shamin, religion leader at the academy. He delivers lessons about the proper ways boys and girls prepare themselves before a prayer to Allah, or God. Boys fold their knees and cover themselves from the belly to the knees, and girls cover their faces with cloths, he said.

Shamin also emphasized to students they must have a clean space for prayer and pray on time.

Before a prayer, he urged students to "wash everything you have from inside. You wash your heart from the bad habits you have."

A line of responsibility evolves from the lesson about budgeting time.

"Allah allows us to respect time and time is very, very important," Shamin said. "Don't watch TV for five years. In the afterlife, Allah will ask you, 'What did you do with your time?' You say, 'I watched seven hours of TV per day.' He'll say, 'This is unacceptable.' "

Source The Arizona Republic

Read news on Arizona Chinese News