Program lets Ismaili Muslim parents share learning experience with their children

Carrollton, USA - Class springs to attention with the Pledge of Allegiance. Five-year-old Saniya Khoja takes the lead, twirling a red-white-and-blue flag the size of a napkin. Little ones with hands over hearts recite "... one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all." Then, Saniya and her classmates sing "Are You Sleeping, Brother John?" Voices rise in Arabic greetings. Mothers and a few fathers join in harmony.

This is an after-school program for Ismaili Muslim children in Carrollton at their social and spiritual center, known as a jamatkhana. And the program emphasizes an essential that public schools have tried to inspire for decades: parental involvement.

"This is the secret sauce," said Gulzar Babool, the national program director for the Ismaili Learning Center for Parents and Children. "It is what makes it successful."

The program at the Learning Center for Parents and Children emphasizes early literacy and school readiness and "empowers mothers to assimilate in this community," Babool said.

Ismailis are a minority within the Shia sect of the broader Muslim world of 1.5 billion. And Ismailis are 10,000 strong in North Texas.

The program is a fusion of traditional and Montessori teaching methods. Montessori methods generally are characterized by the absence of tests and grades and allow for small group instruction.

The Ismaili program places an emphasis on exercise, including yoga, and teaches children Spanish as an additional language. The program takes children ages 3 to 6 years old with at least one parent willing to commit to stay in the classroom with the child.

"They walk with a lot more confidence," Babool said of the children. "They speak very well. They can talk to older people, as well as their peers."

Saniya, for example, eyes a photographer taking a photo of her. When he's finished, she insists on taking the photographer's notebook so she may spell her name correctly.

In the school's "discovery" center, a theater of the imagination, she wraps herself in a costume of the adult world. She chooses to be a chef, puts on an apron and poofy white hat at a play stove.

In another classroom, a child is asked to name an object taken from a plastic bin. He looks at it, and, in Urdu, says "chapal." The class is taught in English.

"Yes, sandals," the teacher says gently. The little boy runs to embrace his father, who's seated on the floor and within easy grasp.

"You should never push the child because that diminishes the love of learning," Babool says quietly to visitors.

Parents can take an extra push, though. In another class, teacher Rukhsana Hussain makes sure mothers stay focused. "OK, Mommies, are you writing it down so you can emphasize it at home?"

In Carrollton, the annual cost for the program is $225 per child. The education program has spread to a dozen other spiritual and social centers of Ismaili Muslims in the United States. Ismaili centers in Plano and Euless have similar programs

Other immigrant groups run after-school programs, such as the Chinese and Koreans. Ismaili Muslim adults are largely immigrant, too, but come from countries as diverse as Pakistan, Tanzania, India and Kenya. That poses more challenges.

So, in Carrollton, at the oldest of four North Texas jamatkhanas, the program has attracted interest and praise within the local school district because of the strong parental link.

"Parents are the first teachers," says Sanil Sheriff, an elementary teacher in Carrollton. "The earlier you get the parent and child involved, the better. Can you imagine if we could do that more in public schools? That is why we all support PTAs."

Amynah Juma, a Lewisville nurse attending class with her daughter, said her child Irsya views homework as something to devour, like dessert.

"She is all excited about LCPC homework," Juma says. "I think it is more because I spend time with her."

Rahim Shamsuddin runs a barbecue franchise, a demanding job with long hours. But this night, the 40-year-old Pakistani immigrant sits on the floor with his son, who is mapping the United States in miniature.

"I am learning with my son," he says, "and I like it."

On the bulletin board is yet another lesson plan from a Saturday school at the jamatkhana. "Poverty/Unemployment. How is it a threat to humanity? How does it destroy human life? How can we defeat it? With the help of what institution?"

The answer is the Aga Khan Development Network, the bulletin board reads.

Despite their small numbers within the Muslim world, Ismailis have a high profile. It's due partly to the globetrotting ways of their English-speaking, Harvard-educated leader, known as Aga Khan, and the network's philanthropy of development agencies focused largely on Asia and Africa.

The network includes a U.S. division, the Washington-based Aga Khan Foundation, which listed nearly $188 million in assets in its 2008 filing with the Internal Revenue Service. Each year, Ismailis hold a local charity event, the Dallas Partnership Walk. It raised $550,000 in September.

In October, Aga Khan visited with Texas Gov. Rick Perry to ink an agreement that would expand cultural, health, natural disaster and education exchanges.

"He [Aga Khan] believes education is the most important thing," Babool says. If you are hit by a disaster, you can rebound with a good education, she says, paraphrasing the Ismaili leader.

"He says that if you have nothing left and you have a good, educated mind, you can start all over."