By Jennifer Garza
Published: Friday, Mar. 13, 2009 – 12:00 am | Page 6B
It is 7:45 Thursday morning when the students at Al Arqam Islamic School line up for an assembly before school. As always, boys in their lines, girls in another.
The morning scripture reading can be heard throughout the south Sacramento campus. A kindergartner adjusts her hijab, or head scarf. A teenage girl whispers to her little brother to settle down. Two eighth-grade boys talk about “American Idol.”
Imam Mohamed Kamel steps forward, and the room quiets.
“Allah does not care about how good you look or how wealthy you are,” he said near the end of his five-minute talk. “All he cares about is how clean your heart is and how good your deeds are.”
Here at a converted Best department store across from Florin Mall, students learn lessons in academics and the Islamic way of life.
More than 300 students attend Al Arqam, which officials say has the only full-time comprehensive Islamic high school in California.
While other religious schools struggle with enrollment, Al Arqam is thriving and is one of the fastest-growing faith-based campuses in the region.
The students come from Sacramento and other parts of California, and a few are from other states. They come from different backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures but share a common faith.
They are all Muslim, they all dress modestly, they all follow the same dietary rules, and about 1:15 in the afternoon, they all break from studies to face Mecca and pray.
Last month, the Catholic Diocese cited declining enrollment for the merging of two south Sacramento schools and the closure of Loretto High School. Al Arqam, which started 11 years ago, has added 40 students in the past two years and has a waiting list of about 50 students, mostly for the lower grades.
Al Arqam started its high school three years ago. Enrollment is small in the upper grades, but administrators see those numbers growing as the children in the primary grades get older.
Two weeks ago, Al Arqam was accepted into the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate program, believed to be the first private school in the Sacramento region to achieve that status.
Families make sacrifices
Many families have moved to Sacramento just so their children could attend the school. Tuition is about $4,500 a year.
Ramseesha Sattar, 14, moved from Reno to Sacramento with her family after she and her siblings were accepted at Al Arqam. She plans to stay for high school.
During a recent computer class, she wondered, for a moment, what public school would be like in her hometown.
Perhaps, she said, no one would notice if she removed her head scarf or talked to a boy in the corridor. At Al Arqam, such behavior would bring unwanted attention. Conversation between a boy and a girl must be respectful and be for a specific purpose, such as asking about an assignment.
Still, Sattar said she would prefer Al Arqam over a public school.
“I like it here. I don’t mind the rules,” said Sattar “They’re teaching us about Islam, and that’s the way it is.”
Her father said the family didn’t hesitate to move even though he had to find someone to manage his restaurant in Reno while he started another business in Sacramento. He pays nearly $12,000 annually in tuition for this three children.
“Every sacrifice we have made has been worth it,” said Mohammed Sattar. “It was not easy. But it was important that the children get a good education and learn Islamic teachings.”
School officials predict interest in their campus will grow. “People in our community really value education, and they’re looking for an environment where their children can practice their religious values,” said Dalia Wardany, the school’s vice principal who has three children at Al Arqam.
Some Muslims have doubts about the school, said Wardany. She said they worry about the academic standards and if it is as good as a public school. “We’ve worked like crazy to change that,” she said, adding that they have received more inquiries since acquiring IB status.
Many of the school’s parents have brought their expertise to the school. Ninety-eight parents work at Intel.