In the fall, the only Islamic high school in the area quietly opened its doors in the lower level of the same East Mountain Street complex that houses the Worcester Islamic Center and Alhuda Academy, a pre-kindergarten through Grade 8 school.
The next closest Islamic high school is in Mansfield. "It's actually been a need for the community for a long time," said Joanne Vakil, principal of Al-Hikmah Academy.
Al-Hikmah, which means "wisdom," was founded after four families with high school-age students started brainstorming, she said. Parents, including her, wanted a school with Islamic religious studies and Arabic courses, and they also wanted one in which Islamic students would feel comfortable.
That wasn't always the case in other schools, she said. Some of the students "did have difficulties with other students in public schools, where they were either called names or felt uncomfortable. I think this environment gives one less pressure of having to deal with that," Ms. Vakil said.
Yusuf (Brandon) Toropov of Worcester, who teaches Shakespeare at Al-Hikmah and language arts and social studies at Alhuda, where his children are among the students, said, "The big difference here is we're part of the mosque. What that means is there's a whole support network that's in place that you wouldn't get elsewhere, and you're surrounded by kids who have the same values. … You're not really swimming upstream because of that."
He noted that he once saw middle school students sharing a video of "cool hijabi girls" (those wearing headscarves). "That's a really kind of important social bonding that they would not get in a public high school," he said.
He noted that the school also prays together at midday, which is "a huge part of what it means to be an Islamic community."
The high school's student body consists of nine students in Grades 9-11, eight of them girls, and they come from the Worcester area and as far away as Springfield and Connecticut.
The 11th-graders are at the school only two days a week for classes in religion and Arabic. The rest of the time they are taking core subjects at local community colleges in Massachusetts and Connecticut through dual enrollment programs. It's a model similar to Al-Noor Academy in Mansfield, which also has its 11th- and 12th-graders attend local colleges.
Students said the academics are manageable, and they hope to pursue college degrees for careers as pharmacists, doctors, engineers and lawyers.
They also said they value a school that offers Islam and Arabic classes and where it's normal to wear a head scarf. In public school, said Elaf Wohaibi, 16, of Springfield, "You might be tempted to not wear yours just to blend in."
At Al-Hikmah, "There are people you can relate to and not as much peer pressure as you would get in public school," said Rewana Khedr, 16, of West Boylston.
Female students wear head scarves and modest clothing, including loose long-sleeved shirts and pants. Male students wear long-sleeved shirts and pants. Sneakers are fine, but no one is allowed to wear jeans.
Although students of any religion are welcome, so far it is only Islamic students who have joined.
It's such a small school that students say there aren't any cliques, but the lone male must feel a bit left out when the eight girls refer to themselves as the "Woosta sistahs," a name they used at the Muslim Interscholastic Tournament at Boston University. The group came home with 15 awards, according to Vice Principal Nazia Amroze. The school also participated in the regional science fair at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and two girls advanced to the next level of competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The two genders are often together, although not for classes on Arabic and the Koran.
The school charges $7,000 a year for Grades 9 and 10, and $3,000 for Grades 11 and 12, but families must also pay the tuition at community colleges where the students enroll for three to six courses a semester.
College courses aren't the only reasons students travel off campus. For physical education this quarter, for instance, everyone piles into a couple of vans and heads to the Worcester Fencing Club on the other side of the city. At the club, the Woosta Sistahs kept their head scarves on, but tucked them into the back of their fencing jackets and under their helmets. Fencing center owner and head coach Douglas Jacobs chided the girls for not being more aggressive, but all seemed to be having fun.
Students have also traveled away from the school for community service projects.