Yahya Mohamed listens intently to his teacher in his grade three class at the Muslim Association of Canada's Abraar school.
OTTAWA — It’s 10 a.m., and the bell for morning recess rings at Abraar School.
Students don their winter coats and boots before heading out onto the sunny playground at the Bayshore-area elementary school.
As they pass principal Moussa Ouarou in the hall, they call him “Brother Moussa” and offer a polite Arabic greeting: Salaam alaikum — Peace be upon you.
Ouarou greets the students in return, smiles and sends them on their way.
“That sense of brotherhood creates the atmosphere that makes everyone comfortable for performing,” he says.
It seems to be working.
The Abraar School, an Islamic private school celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, placed fourth among Ottawa-area schools on the Fraser Institute’s annual ranking of Ontario elementary schools.
The top three schools are Nepean’s Laurier-Carrière, Stephen Leacock in Kanata and Osgoode public school.
The 2010 report is based on the results of standardized reading, writing and math testing in Grades 3 and 6, conducted in the 2008/09 school year.
Abraar School offers what it calls an “Islamic education for a new generation.” High academic achievement is combined with developing and preserving the Islamic identity and instilling a deep sense of citizenship in its 245 students from junior kindergarten to Grade 8.
Prospective students entering Grades 2 or higher must pass math and language tests and submit a recent report card before being accepted to the school. The school can’t take all children whose parents want to send them: it can’t accommodate students with learning disabilities and doesn’t have proper facilities for students with physical disabilities. Annual tuition ranges from $3,150 to $4,050 per year depending on the division.
The school day lasts from 8:20 a.m. to 3:25 p.m. to accommodate extra classes — Arabic language, Islamic studies and Koran classes — without taking away from the basics.
“We take learning very seriously,” the principal says.
The school is owned by the Muslim Association of Canada and run by a volunteer board. Because the association operates a number of schools in across the country, the board can lean on the expertise of others when developing school policies.
“Having a national view of things helps us share experiences, learn from others and allows others to learn from our experiences — what works, what doesn’t work,” says board member Ahmad Ammar.
Islam calls on followers to make a positive contribution to their societies, but Ammar says it can be difficult for
people from different cultural backgrounds to feel as though they are making a contribution to Canada, often because of language barriers.
For children born and raised in Canada, the school is trying to overcome some of the integration challenges their parents might have faced, while at the same time maintaining the core values and identity of Ottawa’s Muslim community.
That can be a challenge in modern North American society, but Ouarou says it’s one other religious schools share.
“Kids need guidance. When you go to the outside world, everything is accessible and everything is permittable, so they need some guidelines.”
At Abraar, teachers and support staff are committed to providing that guidance in a warm, nurturing way.
“This is not just a job, this is not just a way to pay the bills, this is a mission,” Ammar says.
Ouarou agrees, adding the school has come this far because the belief in its mission — held by staff, parents and students alike — is firm.
In September 2000, Abraar School began offering full-time classes in a rented community centre off Rideau Street. There were 90 students.
Volunteers went in early every morning to set up the classroom and returned in the afternoon to take it all down in order to accommodate other activities at the centre.
The school moved to its own building on Navan Road in 2002, but that location put it on the opposite side of the city from where much of the Muslim community lives in the west end.
The next year, the school moved to its current location on Grenon Avenue, which it purchased from the region’s French Catholic school board.
In 2005, the school made headlines after an essay glorifying martyrdom and violence against Jews was made public. Two investigators from the province’s Ministry of Education said the essay, and the approving comments from two teachers, did not represent a systemic problem at the school.
Abraar’s administration has since closely monitored teachers to ensure the school’s policies are being followed, Ammar says.
During the school day, winter boots are lined up neatly in the main hall, which is painted canary yellow and features bulletin boards brimming with stories, poems and art projects created by students. On one board, colourful pipecleaners are bent in every direction to create the forms of Olympic athletes in motion.
In the gym, people are setting up for a Koran competition, in which top students from each class will be asked to recite specific passages from memory.
If there is a challenge facing administrators at Abraar, it’s space. The school is currently at full capacity except for Grades 6, 7 and 8. Ammar says it’s a question the board will continue to wrestle with — how to grow and serve more people in the community.
A few years from now, the first Abraarians — kids who went to the school all the way from kindergarten to Grade 8 — will graduate from high school. Raisa Lokman is one of them.
Now 14 and a Grade 9 student at Bell High School, Raisa went to Abraar from senior kindergarten to Grade 8. Her older sister also graduated from the school, her younger sister is currently in Grade 5 and her youngest sister starts in September.
The teachers, she says, helped create a family environment, challenged students with material that went beyond their years and instilled a mix of professional and study skills.
Raisa was nervous about the transition to high school, but soon realized she had nothing to worry about. She could handle it.
“(The teachers) helped us every step of the way,” she says. “It was really hard to let go. I wish they had an Abraar high school.”