The 16 students of Muhammad University learn both academics and Islam

The small group of boys dressed in suits and ties filed accurately into the sanctuary of Muhammad University of Islam School No. 20 to start the day with prayer and motivation. speak.

“Every day you should have a goal, no matter how small,” said minister Wasim Muhammad, who oversees the school and runs the nearby temple of about 300 members.

The boys seemed to be listening intently, sitting in perfect posture with their hands crossed on their knees. Then, after the prayer, they were dismissed from the sanctuary and three teachers rushed into their small classroom to begin teaching.

It’s a typical morning at the small K-12 school, of only a handful in the Nation of Islam-affiliated region. Located in a busy corridor off Haddon Avenue in the Parkside neighborhood of Camden, it educates 16 children – nine of whom belong to Muhammad – in the academic fundamentals and principles of their religion for three hours a day, four days a week.

A former district social studies and special education teacher, Muhammad, who is also chairman of the Camden City School District Advisory Board, established the university in 2011 as part of Temple of Islam No. 20 of Muhammad.

The school, among nine non-state schools in Camden registered with the state Department of Education, follows the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam from 1934 until his death in 1975 and has lobbies for independent black-owned schools and businesses. The school is closed on Tuesdays to allow children to spend time with their families (although it is open for 180 days) and the sexes are educated separately – boys in the morning and girls in the afternoon – this which officials say limits distractions.

However, not all students are Muslims.

Christine Mensah from Delran, who is a Christian, said she was happy with the education her son Nylikem, 4, and Selinam, 7, are receiving. She carries them daily for the 20-minute trip to school.

“It’s worth the sacrifice,” said Mensah, 36, a grant writer. “They get a higher education. They are happy here.

The school operates with tuition of $150 per week, with scholarships for needy students, as well as temple donations. And like other private and parochial schools in New Jersey, it receives resources such as textbooks, laptops, science lab supplies, or support services for eligible students, but does not receive direct funding from the school. state or federal government.

Due to the low enrollment in the independent school, teachers have different levels and levels of learning within a single class. The children are divided mainly between early childhood, primary and secondary school. The school can accommodate 50 students but has opted for a reduced number during the pandemic.

On a recent morning in Sister Kathryn Muhammad’s K-3 classroom, several boys took a chess lesson, learning about the pieces and how to set up the board.

Ahad Muhammad, 6, a kindergartener, placed coins and excitedly shouted, “White is first.”

“Chess is a peaceful, silent game,” she told the class. “It helps you focus on other ways of living.”

Muhammad and the other two teachers at the school are certified educators who previously worked in traditional public schools in the city, but wanted the opportunity to teach in a Muslim school.

“This is my community,” Muhammad said. “That’s really where I wanted to be. I always wanted to teach mine.

Besides chess, students also study Arabic, art history and music theory once a week. Core subjects are math, science, language arts, and civics. Older students have science labs on Fridays and read black-centric books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

“The emphasis here is on academics, self-knowledge, character and discipline,” said Sister Norah Muhammad, who teaches a general civilization course and oversees the women at the temple. Students must also attend a business course to learn how to start their own business.

Older students begin each session with a writing prompt or essay topic already written on the board when they enter the classroom of Sister Chabree Muhammad, the school principal.

After writing in journals for about 20 minutes, eighth-grade student Wasi Muhammad and his brother Haleem, both 14, set about solving pre-calculus problems. Neither had ever attended a public school.

“I just feel like school fits my life,” said Haleem, who enrolled in the school as a preschooler. “They teach us more here.”

During a music lesson later that day for elementary school girls, Kathryn Muhammad played classical music excerpts and asked them to identify the composer. Hands went up quickly.

“I know it’s Bach,” replied one girl.

Chabree Muhammad, a former specialist teacher in the district, said the school uses the same textbooks used in the Camden School District, but the curriculum helps students focus better. Students are allowed to participate in sports programs in public schools and parents are encouraged to enroll their children in community activities and art and music lessons, she said.

“The biggest difference is that most children understand that they came here to learn,” she said. “They’re not there to socialize.”

Senior Waasiya Muhammad, one of Wasim Muhammad’s daughters, said she transferred to school in the second grade. She is taking lessons with a sister, Hasina, 16, a second-year student.

“I don’t think I’m missing anything,” said Waasiya, 17, an aspiring orthodontist. “It’s better to be here.”

About a dozen students have graduated from the school since it opened, most going on to enroll in trade schools or colleges, like 19-year-old Safdar Muhammad, the only son of Kathryn Muhammad. He recently completed his freshman year at the Harrisburg Institute, majoring in esports management.

“I feel like I not only got a good education, but the best education,” Safdar said.

While the school is still going through the accreditation process, it operates as if it were home-schooled, which allows its students to qualify for college, Wasim Muhammad said. Students do not take standardized state tests or earn a traditional high school diploma, he said.

Muhammad, who became chairman of the nine-member Camden Schools Advisory Council in 2020 after the sudden death of longtime council member Martha F. Wilson, believes in school choice, which is popular in the district : schools, while about 5,800 are enrolled in its traditional public schools.

Yet critics believe his school’s foundation poses a conflict of interest with his involvement on the board, which reports to state-appointed Superintendent Katrina McCombs as part of the state takeover. in 2013 of the struggling school system. The state school ethics commission has twice dismissed complaints against Muhammad alleging that his role as chairman of the board placed his private school at an unfair advantage for special treatment.

McCombs, her former high school classmate, declined repeated interview requests. District spokeswoman Valerie Merritt said “it would not be appropriate to comment specifically on the educational services provided by any specific school.”

Born Donnie Walker, Muhammad, 58, grew up in Parkside and graduated from Camden High School where he played on the 1986 Championship basketball team with current Mayor Vic Carstarphen, his childhood friend.

A rising political actor in Camden, Muhammad has purchased properties near the school and wants to create a $10 million college campus to include a cafe, bookstore and arts centre. He also operates a daycare one block from the school.

“So many people look to him for leadership in our community,” Carstarphen said. “He’s my guy.”

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