At a glance, Orange Crescent School looks like most schools in Orange County.
In the courtyard, kindergartners play “London Bridge” and giggle. In a classroom, eighth-graders struggle with an algebra problem. In the cafeteria, teachers fight a losing battle to quiet students.
But on closer inspection, there are striking dissimilarities.
The children start the day with a prayer--in Arabic. The principal, who also serves as the eighth-grade algebra teacher, leads his class dressed in a sharwani , a long coat that is part of the native dress of Pakistan. The girls in his class, like all girls after the third grade, cover their heads with hijabs , a sort of combined shawl and scarf, and are grouped in a semicircle behind the male students. Other teachers call out names like Ghada, Amina, Ali and Jamal for answers to questions.
With an eclectic mix of American schooling and ancient Islamic traditions, Orange Crescent is the county’s only school for Muslim students. And it is simultaneously thriving and struggling.
Established in September, 1983, the school “is dedicated to foster within each student the principle of submission to the will of Allah as the essential element in achieving human excellence,” the school’s brochure says. “The goal is to develop self-worth, independence, ethics and moral values, the sense for truth, spirituality, self-discipline, self-actualization, and love for knowledge and learning.”
In that regard, the school is thriving. Muslim parents, many of them immigrants hoping to provide their children with a sense of their religious tradition amid a decidedly non-Islamic culture, send their children here. While some Arab and Islamic nations are split in different Muslim sects, Muslims of all nationalities attend the school.
“The students are 90 to 95% born and raised here, but their parents are immigrant parents,” said the school’s principal, Qaiser Imam. “You can name any country in the Middle East and you’ll find them here. We also have children from non-Islamic countries, such as Vietnam, Cambodia and South American countries. I would say we cover 70 to 80% of the population of the world. They all live together, they play together, very harmoniously.”
While the school is heavily steeped in the traditions of Islam--the term is derived from the word salam , meaning peace--not all of its 320 students are Muslims. Some non-Muslim parents, attracted by the school’s emphasis on traditional values and parent involvement, have taken advantage of the school’s open-admissions policy.
“They are sending their children here for the good environment,” Imam said. “They feel their children are more safe here.”
One parent, Sayed Hussain, said he brings his 5-year-old daughter, Sana, from Inglewood every day to attend kindergarten.
“It’s secure here,” Hussain said. “The reason I send her here is to learn some Arabic and about Islam.”
In addition to math, science, social studies, language arts and art classes, students spend about 90 minutes per day learning Arabic and studying Islam, Imam said. Even preschoolers take part in the language lessons.
“We are trying to teach how to read the Koran and then how to understand the Koran,” Imam said. “In the Arabic program, we try to teach them the Arabic language so they can gain more vital knowledge about Islam. . . . They can read Arabic sometimes earlier than they can read English.”
In keeping with the traditions of Islam, all students line up at 8:30--the start of a seven-hour school day--to recite in Arabic the Surah Fatiha , a prayer of thanks to Allah. The entire student body, along with many members of the local Muslim community, also goes to the campus mosque at 1 p.m. for 10 minutes of worship--one of five times they’ll pray each day. Following Islamic law, all who enter the mosque remove their shoes and separate themselves by sex--adult males in front, adult females in the rear. Older children are similarly separated in the classroom.
With an estimated 60,000 Muslims in Orange County, the mosque and the school have become focal points of Islamic activity. In addition to the 320 students who attend Orange Crescent daily, another 600 Muslim children attend the school’s weekend class, and more than 2,000 Muslims gather for prayers each Friday, the Muslim Sabbath.
Through contributions, fund-raisers and donations from Muslim communities around the nation, Orange Crescent raised $2 million and built a modern classroom building, which opened in time for the start of the 1988-89 school year.
But although the Muslim community pulled together for that cause, financing remains a struggle for Orange Crescent, despite the yearly tuition of $1,790 for full-time students.
The old wooden buildings, which once contained classrooms and now house offices, a cafeteria and the mosque, need new paint and plaster. Science and laboratory equipment is almost non-existent.
Aspects of school life that public school students take for granted are conspicuously absent. No lunches are served in the cafeteria; students must bring their own. And there are no school buses. “Transportation,” the parent handbook says, “is the responsibility of parents.”
Recreational equipment is also scant. Although the courtyard has a small playground with two swing sets and a jungle gym, most students entertained themselves during recess playing tag and other games that do not require equipment. Some boys made use of discarded tires as playthings, while three girls swung on the gate of a wrought-iron fence.
“Public school has some stuff that we don’t have here,” said Ronnie Nashef, 13, a seventh-grader who transferred from a public school. “They have a science lab, a computer room and other stuff. Mostly everybody in my class talks about that.”
For transfer students like Ronnie, much of the allure of public school remains. Many acknowledge that they attend Orange Crescent because their parents insist.
Sarah Khan, 10, a fifth-grader who transferred from Linda Vista Elementary School in Orange, said the advantages here include meeting a variety of children of other nationalities and learning a new language.
“Arabic’s a pretty language,” she said.
But given the choice, Sarah said she would return to public school.
“I like this school because I can learn Islam . . . but I’d go back to public school because here they’re way too strict,” she said.