As an immigrant, Mohamed Ali hopes his daughter will remember her roots.
So every morning he makes a 45-minute drive from Murfreesboro to Bellevue, so his daughter can attend the Nashville International Academy. There, along with learning to read and playing with her friends, she's also studying Arabic.
"I want her to know my language," said Ali, a native of Egypt. "I want her to know my religion."
Ali's daughter is one of 84 students at the preschool through sixth-grade academy, housed in a newly dedicated building on Charlotte Pike. School officials hope their new $1.25 million building will allow it to double in size.
"We are ambitious," said Amiri Yasin Al-Hadid, a former Tennessee State University professor who serves as the principal. "We want to offer a world-class education."
Al-Hadid envisions the site as a hub for a thriving Islamic community in Bellevue. About 1,500 Muslims live in the area, and that number is expected to grow, Al-Hadid said.
"The mosque is going to be the capstone," Al-Hadid said. "We have to grow the school at the same time so that the next generation will be one that attends the mosque. You can't grow a mosque or a church with senior citizens."
Like many private religious schools, the academy, which was founded in 1996, has two main goals.
The first is to ground students in their faith. That includes teaching Arabic and the basics of Islam, as well as developing strong values.
"We have to give our children a moral compass," Al-Hadid said.
The second is to prepare them to succeed. Along with the Islamic studies, students are expected to master reading, writing, math, science and social studies. From preschool on, teachers stress the importance of college.
Hala Zein-Sabatto, who recently graduated from Hillwood High School as valedictorian, credits the academy for her success. Zein-Sabatto, who plans to study biology at Vanderbilt University this fall, started her education at the Muslim school in the late 1990s. In those days the school met in a house, and classes were small and close-knit.
"My teachers were my mother's friends," she said. "It was like a big extended family."
Along with the challenges of being a child of immigrants — her family comes from Syria — Zein-Sabatto said she felt like an outsider growing up as a Muslim in the Bible Belt. Going to school with other Muslim students made her feel normal.
"They gave me roots," she said. "It gave me a lot of confidence in who I am — especially in wearing a scarf and in being a Muslim."
That's a common experience for students at the academy. Many come from immigrant families and are trying to figure out what it means to be a Muslim and to be an American, Al-Hadid said.
Families face challenges
Ather Khan, the school's treasurer, plans to enroll his son in the academy's preschool next year. Khan, who manages the school's finances as a volunteer, said he wants what's best for his son. He worries about the temptations faced by kids growing up in the United States.
American culture is a challenge for Muslim parents, Khan said. Along with the language and cultural barriers, they face the demands of working long hours.
"You are trying to fit in to American culture and the way of life here — parents don't have time to spend with their kids," he said.
Schools like the Nashville International Academy help Muslim parents take on those challenges, said Karen Keyworth, one of the directors of the Islamic Schools' League of America.
Although Islamic schools in the United States date to the 1930s, there were fewer than 60 in the U.S. by the 1990s. That number has grown to about 240, including four in Tennessee.
Today, most schools are like the Nashville International Academy — they're 10 or 12 years old, have finally gotten a permanent building and are planning for the future. Their continued success depends on developing high-quality academic programs, Keyworth said.
She acknowledges that some non-Muslims fear Islamic schools, seeing them as training grounds for radicals. But she dismisses the idea, saying that Muslim parents are concerned mostly about seeing their kids learn values and academic skills.
"There isn't a lot of room to teach radicalism when all the parents want their kids to go to Harvard," she said.
Al-Hadid is counting on academic excellence to attract Muslim and non-Muslim students to Nashville International Academy. He said some Muslim families send their children to faith-based schools like Father Ryan High School, which is Catholic.
"We believe that academic excellence will attract the market," he said. "Can a non-Muslim student come here? Yes."
The new school building is the first phase of development for the Charlotte Avenue site, owned by the Islamic Society of Nashville. The society hopes to add a community center, gymnasium and later a mosque.
For now, volunteers at the school are busy raising funds for the future and preparing for graduation ceremonies on June 20. The ceremonies start at 10 a.m., and Vincent Durnan, director of University School of Nashville, will give the keynote address.
As a nonprofit school, things are tight, Khan said, and raising funds is a challenge in the current economy. Still he has faith that things will work out.
"Times are difficult, but God, in some way, will find a way for us to get through."