Private, religious schools have long been an alternative to public schools in the United States. The U.S. Department of Education estimates more than four million students attend schools run by religious groups, the vast majority of them Christian. But VOA's Persian Service found a school for Muslim students in the Washington suburbs. Barry Newhouse narrates this report by Setareh Sanjar.
Like many high school seniors, Mariam Mohammed is looking forward to graduating and going to college. But she does not attend a typical high school. She attends a private Muslim school in the eastern state of Maryland. Mariam says she did not feel comfortable attending a public school.
"I was constantly needing to explain myself. Some of the words that I use -- like I would go to the library and say, 'Assalamu Alaikum.' That is our greeting. It means, 'peace be upon you.' And they would give me this weird look," said Mohammed. "So, it kind of felt awkward. Here, I'm more comfortable. People understand what I mean. I don't have to explain myself. And, certain standards that I have myself -- I also live in an environment with the same standards."
Mahboubeh Ayatollahzadeh has been the principal at the Muslim Community School for the past two years. She says the school was started by parents who wanted their children to be exposed to an Islamic-based education.
"Families who were interested in having a place where their children could retain their Islamic and cultural values got together, and started this school. There were very few at the beginning," said Ayatollahzadeh.
James and Khadira Huff enrolled their six-year-old daughter, Leila, in the school to reinforce the Islamic values she learns at home.
"We felt it was important that she be exposed to religion at an early age. We really wanted her to learn Arabic and some of the Koran early on," said Khadira.
The school curriculum includes courses on the Koran, and has designated prayer times. While boys and girls are separated into different areas in the prayer room, they are allowed to interact in classrooms, at lunch, and on the playground.
The Muslim Community School teaches 110 students from ages five to 18. Annual tuition costs are close to $5,000.
The principal says the school's biggest strength is its diversity. "Every year, we have an international event. We celebrate our different cultures. Among the teachers and students, 17 to18 different countries are represented. Countries, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, United States, African countries--Sierra Leone. These are just some of the countries we have students from," said Ayatollahzadeh.
Elementary and middle school classes are taught in English, but Arabic and Farsi are offered in high school.
Despite attending an Islamic secondary school, students at the Muslim Community School say they are prepared to attend secular universities.
Senior Mariam Mohammed said, "Definitely. We have had a lot of interaction with other schools. We have gone out on field trips. It is not as if we are isolated."
Recent graduates from the school are now studying law, medicine and other subjects at secular universities in the United States.