I walked in to meet the leader behind one of the most successful charter schools in Georgia. It was a random Friday after dismissal.
It looked quiet from the outside; I didn’t expect to find anyone. Once passed through the main door, I saw tens of adults, in a circle, smiling and sharing memories. They were celebrating their little achievements of the week, the executive director noted to me. Those small achievements included a grant with close to 100 thousand US Dollars!
Then my tour swung into action.
Ehab Jaleel, the executive director of Amana Academy in Alpharetta, Georgia, USA, had a flourishing career in corporate America. Working for Coca-Cola and General Electric for 20 years, his wife one day told him, “you’ll never get an opportunity like this again,” to benefit people in a very direct way.
In 2004, he decided to carry his experiences and join a team of founders to establish the Amana Academy. Since then, the charter school has been awarded and recognized for achievements on local, state and national levels.
Charter schools are partly funded by the government, which makes the secular laws of public education apply to them. Hence, the school is legally not allowed to teach Islamic studies. Amana was the first school in Georgia to teach Arabic as a second language from Kindergarten to the 8th grades.
This makes some parents think of it as a third way to avoid the problems with Islamic and public schools. (For more on this check: Islamic or Public Schooling in US: Not as Easy as it Seems)
AboutIslam.net sat with Mr. Jaleel, first as an executive director to learn about Amana’s success story, and second as a Muslim American father of three daughters to listen to his perspective on how to raise Muslim kids in America.
The Executive Director
AboutIslam.net (AI): An engineer by training and someone who spent 20 years in the corporate world, how did you end up leading one of the most successful charter schools in Georgia?
Jaleel: I love community work; I love working to further the interest of the community. My career at Coca Cola and GE was a mix of marketing, supplier management, very innovative in some cases, and was international. I had a very wide skill set, which helped me a lot. I also served on non-profit boards, so I understood how non-profits worked, too and the challenges they have. So, SubhanAllah, I just felt that at the time I accumulated the right skill set to be able to do something like this.
The part that I didn’t have was the academic knowledge. One of the key things that I have done over the years is to hire very strong, talented academic leaders. Teachers report to our Principal Ms. Cherisse Campbell and our Assistant Principal Ms. Najla Abdul-Khaliq.
AI: What does it mean to be a Charter school, compared to a public school or a private Islamic school?
Jaleel: Charter schools were conceived back in 1988 by a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His idea was how to create innovation within the public school sector. The idea evolved to create startup charter schools where anybody can come and say we got a very good idea and would like to test it; if it works then this idea could be disseminated to other schools and scale.
The authorizer allows the group of people to run a school for five year-period with the understanding that they are going to produce higher academic results, so the school is much more accountable; if they don’t produce results their charter will not be renewed.
In our case, at Amana, this is our fourth renewal. So, Alhamdulillah, we have a track record now. That track record has prompted agencies to come to us asking us to replicate our school. They want us to create three to five Amana Academies in Metro Atlanta, Georgia. We have been authorized to start our second one, and it is going to be in West Atlanta. They are providing assistance and access to grants to be able to do that. We have raised close to two million dollars in grant money to start the new school; that is money from foundations and the federal government to start a second school because we have had very good academic results.
A very important role of a charter school is to share what they have learned with other schools. Three times a year we have something called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) venture days; in those days we invite other schools, they come and learn how we became a STEM certified school and they take some of those practices back to their schools.
AI: Amana is based on EL (Expeditionary Learning) educational model, and K-8 STEM certified, can you explain more about what that means?
Jaleel: Expeditionary Learning is one of the premier education models in the United States. It is being used in 160 schools around the country to really change the trajectory of students and take them to a different level of achievement.
We chose it back when we were found. We liked the fact that there was a lot of fieldwork involved and it was a multidisciplinary approach and that it addresses character and high-quality work in addition to academics. (Watch a short clip about STEM education at Amana)
AI: You have around 100 staff members and 730 students, do you measure your success by numbers or how do you define success at Amana?
Jaleel: No, at the end of the day we are a school; we measure ourselves on: did we make our students ready for high school, did we prepare students to become citizen scholars where they have a desire to make a difference in the world. As EL Education says, did we make them smart to do good, so that they can have an impact on the world? We measure our success academically, there are hardcore numbers we are looking at but we also three times a year we do report cards on the character. We want to develop students that are reflective and need to always be improving.
In general, from an authorizers’ perspective, they only care about one thing: did you outperform the regular schools. They measure us based on achievement and growth. Among the Fulton County schools, we are on the upper right corner of the graph; we have high achievement and high growth. On the academic growth level, our middle school student – the ones who have been with us the longest – are outperforming 99 percent of students across the state, among all public and charter schools.
What is remarkable about that is that half of our students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program; you would statistically expect that a school with half of its population economically disadvantaged would perform in the middle of the pack, not at the top of the pack. That’s why these other agencies are looking at us and saying we want you to consider replication. That’s when you know that something is right about your program when all the students are achieving at a high level and not just the ones that have the privileges.
There is a scorecard called College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), which is used to compare schools to each other. Right now, we have 91.8 on the CCRPI, which is one of the highest charter schools in the state, clearly in the top 5 percent in the Fulton County schools. Also, on the governor’s office of student achievement, they have a scorecard as well in which we are an A-rated school on a scale of A, B, C, D, and F.
We are very diverse. We have a good proportion of African Americans; we have white, south Asian Indians and Pakistanis and Hispanics. We have 30 different languages spoken at home! We have people from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Venezuela, Europe, Russia, and a number of different African countries.
AI: So, where does your Arabic program stand in all of this? Is it a cultural bridge or a character-building tool?
Jaleel: When the founders got together to develop this program, there was so much research that said if you learn a second language at an early age it helps you in two ways: boost your cognitive ability in learning every subject because you are stimulating parts of your brain that may not be normally stimulated; and it cultivates in you cultural competency where you now understand how to interact with people from different cultures. It doesn’t matter what the language is.
The next time you run into somebody who has an accent or has a different tradition than yours, you are going to understand and compare and contrast this with your own tradition and language because you have had some exposure to that at a very early age.
So, when our academic committee on the founding group looked online with the World Languages Department in Georgia they saw Arabic written there, so they found out that there was no other school teaching it despite the need expressed by the department.
But I have to say it was not easy to convince people that we were going to teach Arabic, we were only two to three years after 9/11 and the war in Iraq was going on, it was scary for people. So, we went to all the board member meetings and talked about Arabic and EL Education and why we might think we will be successful. At the end of the day, the administration in the Fulton County Schools recommended approval of our charter; they believed that the model would produce better results.