OPINION: School Choice Programs Give Kids Freedom

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Wanis Shalaby is striding the halls of his school and enthusing. “One thing I love about this country,” the immigrant says, “you can be who you want to be.”

Then we turn a corner, he finds a few students sitting in the hall, writing, and he works out of them that they’d been chatting in class. He is disappointed, they are apologetic, and two minutes of character formation happen. This is why their immigrant parents sent them here, so that in this land where you steer your own course, these children would set out with a functioning moral compass.

Shalaby had been talking about religion. He is Muslim, from Egypt, and he finds America a hospitable place. He is now part of that welcome as principal of Salam School, a kindergarten through 12th-grade operation based at the mosque at 13th and Layton. His school teaches 720 students reading, writing, math, science, history, U.S. lit and all the usuals, and how to be a Muslim in America.

Shalaby makes no bones about it: “It’s a faith-filled school,” he said. He used to teach at a Catholic school in Chicago. He did not find its strong religious identity alienating but inspiring, he says. That school saw faith as something to shape the very being of its students. “This is not a hat to put on or take off,” he said. Rather, “this is who we are.”

So Islam is everywhere at Salam, from the girls’ uniforms – scarves cover their hair – to the boys’ restroom, which includes a low sink built for ritual ablutions. The student body is entirely Muslim, and “their parents expect us to indoctrinate,” said Shalaby. The school does that.

This is not novel among immigrants to Milwaukee, notes Bill Weber, Salam’s physics teacher. Catholic schools sprang up in the 19th century so immigrant children could learn without losing the faith of their fathers. Same goes for people who today find themselves immersed in a foreign culture and language. Salam is about 80% children of immigrants, the rest being immigrants themselves. Said Weber, “You’re not so much looking at a first generation as at a first year.”

The school serves as a bridge to America, said Shalaby. More than half the faculty is non-Muslim. Most are American. The school connects children to adults who know the country but who also grasp that parents do not want their children cut off from their basis for understanding life.

The broader public interest is served by children getting a superior education. Shalaby has numbers, since the students, about 75% attending on a school choice voucher, are tested, as required, on a nationally normed test, the Iowa Basics.

The school is about to graduate its first high-school class. All 15 graduates, said Shalaby, have been accepted for higher education – University of Wisconsin, Marquette University and so on. Several were being interviewed by Ivies. “This is not a white-bread suburban school,” he said, yet every one of these new Americans is going further. “None of my students fell through any cracks in the pipeline,” said Shalaby.

The public gets this at a reasonable price – $6,442 per child for those in the choice program. The school manages in part because its building is donated by the Islamic Center of Milwaukee. Mainly, it’s because “the money goes into educating children, not the benefits program,” said Shalaby.

Read more: http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/118128444.html