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Charter Schools and Wall of Separation

Education: Religious groups operating tax-supported campuses have won praise from some, but critics question the church-state ties.

January 27, 2002|RICHARD FAUSSET | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"It's a question of a trade-off," said Amy Stuart Wells, a Columbia University education professor who studied charter schools at UCLA. "We've opened up the system a little bit more, and it's created some interesting educational environments. But in some cases, we've also created some slippage in regard to allowing religious activity."

To ensure that does not happen in Palmdale, district officials have been making surprise visits to Guidance Charter. So far, the officials say, the school is living up to its word to keep religion out of class.

That was confirmed by many of the school's non-Muslim parents. They say they like the values that govern Guidance Charter's classrooms, and the school's zero-tolerance code of conduct.

"They're not supposed to teach religion, and they don't," said Deme Sewell, 30, who was waiting for her two boys recently in the mosque parking lot. "And I like it because the class size is less than 20 students."

Directly Testing

Church-State Boundary

Some California charter schools have tested the church-state boundary more directly than Guidance Charter has.

In Sunnyvale, the Silicon Valley Academy--the satellite campus of a Fresno-based charter school--was found to be teaching the Koran during school hours in December, according to a Fresno district spokeswoman. The campus' parent school, Gateway Academy, severed its ties with the satellite campus as a result. Gateway has since lost its charter for other reasons.

In Nevada County's Twin Ridges district, a federal lawsuit filed by parents and others accused a charter school of teaching religion. The school uses the Waldorf educational method, which is based on the philosophies of Austrian educator Rudolf Steiner, and includes teachings about Christian saints and Biblical figures. The suit, which also named a public school in the Sacramento area, was thrown out in lower court and the plaintiffs have appealed.

Guidance Charter has put off its after-school Koran classes until the school board votes on extending the charter. School officials also promise to move to a separate campus within three years, and say they have taken pains to obey the letter and spirit of the law.

Hassan, an Egyptian native who holds a UCLA doctorate in Islamic history, has given up his Friday sermons and discussions at the mosque.

Hassan--a bearded, soft-spoken man with a taste for double-breasted suits--said it was a difficult decision. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many less devout Muslims have returned to the mosque to learn more about their religion, he said.

"If you're in Rome, you've got to do as the Romans do," he said. "We are Americans, and we have to conform to the Constitution of this land."

Coloring-book Christmas trees still on display in a window were the sole outward sign of religion in the classrooms. Only one of the school's five teachers--Arabic instructor Randa Abdelshafy--is Muslim.

During her high-energy lessons, Abdelshafy scrupulously avoids words with a religious bent--even the common greeting "Salaam aleikum," or "Peace be with you."

Yet for the children--as well as their parents--the secular and religious can still get a little mixed up. After school, a young student made a point of running up to a visitor to shout, "Hey, we're not of this religion. We're Christians!"

When parent Shahid Khurshid came to pick up his children, he gave Hassan a $200 check. When the principal asked whether it was for the mosque or the school, Khurshid said, "Whatever."

Khurshid, a 34-year-old gas station owner, said he was happy with Guidance Charter. But he said he wishes his children were learning more about their religion.

"If [the school] doesn't teach them," he said, "I guess I will have to teach them at home."

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