Last month, the Islamic Saudi Academy won approval to expand its 34-acre Popes Head Road campus in Fairfax County. The project generated familiar concerns regarding traffic and other development issues, but it also rekindled debate about the school's curriculum. In 2007, a congressionally appointed body found that some textbooks contained passages intolerant of Judaism and other religions, as well as language that could be interpreted as supporting violence. ISA officials have said that the school does not teach intolerance and that they have since addressed those course materials.
This is one student's perspective on the school and the controversy:
When I think about returning to high school for my senior year this month, a sea of thoughts rushes through my mind. I see familiar hallways and rooms that I could navigate with my eyes closed. I picture my classmates and the conversation and laughter that accompany their presence. I think of teachers who turn into friends or second parents. I feel a sense of security and warmth knowing I'll walk among these people every day.
But hearing words such as "hate," "extremism" and "terror" used in discussions of my school disturbs these pleasant thoughts. It doesn't add up. How could the school that I know and love -- the Islamic Saudi Academy in Fairfax -- be associated with such horrible notions?
Common sense makes me ask questions. Why would teachers of other faiths work at a school that taught its students to hate them? How could hundreds of students attend a school such as this and never say anything about it? What kind of parents would agree to send their children to a school characterized by hate and discrimination?
The answer is simple. Such teachers, students and parents don't exist, because this horribly described school doesn't exist, at least not within ISA's walls.
Despite what you may have heard, the Islamic Saudi Academy isn't much different from other Fairfax schools. Our classes start at 8 a.m. and end at 3 p.m. We learn math, history, science, language arts and much more. Our athletes proudly represent the ISA Falcons in basketball, volleyball and soccer. Seemingly inside every other locker hangs a picture of the Jonas Brothers or Zac Efron.
And the few things that may be different about ISA, in my opinion, make it better. Alongside more typical subjects, we are taught Arabic and Islamic studies; this allows Arab students to connect with their culture and gives non-Arabs a fuller understanding of Islam. This understanding is aided by Islamic textbooks discussing various aspects of the religion. I've read and studied from these books for the 11 years I've been a student at the academy, and I have never encountered intolerance and violence being advocated in my education, or in Islam in general. Islamic textbooks are based mainly on the Koran. One of the passages that we have studied repeatedly reads: "Say, we believe in God and that which has been revealed to us, and that which was revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes and that which was given to Moses and Jesus and to other prophets, from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and to Him we submit."
ISA students are focused academically and make the honor roll more often than not. The academy is built on the principles of respect and tolerance toward everyone. The small student population allows for closer relationships between peers. Many seniors are good friends with juniors, and the juniors spend numerous lunches with the sophomores. We're a family.
ISA is separated into a girls' and boys' school. This permits students to concentrate on their academics and provides them with a more comfortable environment. Naturally, though, there's a silent competition between the two sides of the school. The boys constantly prove they're superior at sports, but the girls have a longer honor-roll list and a better fundraising organization.
But outside of ISA, a sense of pride unifies us. When the school participates in any competition, athletic or academic, the contest is no longer between boys and girls but between ISA and the other school. We cheer each other on. We become united by the love we have for our school and for each other.
Okay, there is one more thing I have in common with students just about everywhere: I don't enjoy going to school anymore than the next teenager. But I'm glad to be a student at the Islamic Saudi Academy.