In the wake of 9/11, New Horizon School in Pasadena has faced tough challenges in asserting itself as a progressive Muslim campus.
Enrollment numbers dropped. Parents, teachers and students were regarded with suspicion. And right-wing commentators bashed the school's pledge of allegiance, which begins:
"As an American Muslim, I pledge allegiance to God and His prophet. I respect and love my family and my community, and I dedicate my life to serving the cause of truth and justice."
But rather than revert to isolation, the school has aggressively sought to shape its image through high academic performance and community outreach.
"Part of our school mission is the American Muslim identity," said Levent Akbarut, a New Horizon School board member. "It's not an emphasis on the country where you're from. That's second place to being an American, and that's not really something taught in most Islamic schools."
The private religious school, which has three satellite campuses in Los Angeles and Irvine, is affiliated with the Islamic Center of Southern California. The Pasadena campus, where tuition costs about $7,250 a year, includes 170 students from preschool through eighth grade.
Affirmation of the Muslim American identity is a multilayered task. To instill Muslim beliefs and values, the core curriculum includes Islamic and Koranic studies and Arabic language classes. Each Friday, students attend afternoon prayer services.
And although history classes also contribute to shaping an American identity, the school offers real-life lessons about the classic American melting pot.
Blond blue-eyed children of Eastern European immigrants giggle with their African American classmates. A spunky Colombian American fourth-grader yelps in frustration when his character in the California history game "Go West!" ends up with frostbite.
The student body is Muslim, but the teaching staff is mixed. Some are lifelong Muslims, others converted, and still others belong to different faiths.
Second-grade teacher Carol Dean and a few other instructors and administrators from a neighboring private Christian school arrived at New Horizon 11 years ago. Their former school, operated by the Worldwide Church, had shut down.
But there were no problems in adjusting to their new home.
Dean, a member of the Church of God, said religion -- whether Christian or Muslim -- has only enhanced her teaching.
"The one thing that I wanted to do is still teach the values I taught at my other school, and I found that was what they had here, the universal values of honesty, justice, generosity and respect," Dean said.
Assistant middle school director Nahid Ansari, a Muslim, said the school's mission is to celebrate religious and cultural diversity while focusing on Islamic and secular education.
"It's a reflection of America and teaches respect for other cultures and gives exposure to other cultures," Ansari said. "It shows we don't live in a cocoon."
Khalil Kariem, whose three children attend New Horizon, said the presence of non-Muslim teachers at the Islamic school is a sign of its dedication to the children and academics.
"I see that that's just the way God wants it," he said. "When I see teachers who aren't Muslim, that makes me feel better because I think, OK, they see that this is a first-rate school and they choose to teach here."
New Horizon received a Blue Ribbon Award last year from the U.S. Department of Education for outstanding academic achievement, a rarity among Islamic schools. The Pasadena campus earned the distinction by scoring in the top 10% of state assessment exams. The school is proud of the honor. Blue ribbons adorn building columns and balcony railings, and a commemoration table sits in the middle school lobby.
"There are great teachers here," said Mona Ghannoum, 9. "We have the best curriculum and best teachers."
Rambunctious sixth-grader Haseeb Khan has pragmatic reasons for liking Islamic studies over every other subject:
"It's easy, and our teacher usually lets us go out early. And it's interesting to learn."
The campus has reached out in other ways, including a partnership with Chaim Weizmann Community Day School, a Pasadena Jewish school.
Their kindergartners became pen pals and visited one another's schools. The Jewish and Muslim students have planted daisies together and made friendship quilts. With students from St. Mark's Episcopal School in Altadena, they have also celebrated Daniel Pearl Music Day, honoring a Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped and killed in Pakistan in early 2002.
During a recent Friday afternoon sermon for elementary school students, Islamic studies teacher Haris Tarin reflected on the importance of casting a positive image of Muslim Americans in the community.
"If you're always on top of everything you're doing, you'll feel good about yourself and respect yourself, and others around us will respect us also," he said. "The prophet Muhammad, what did he say? Love for your brother what you would -- "
The students joined in to complete the sentence:
"Love for yourself."