Sunrise Academy adding high school classes, one grade at a time

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The local Muslim community has dreamed for years of expanding central Ohio’s only full-time Islamic school to cover all students seeking a K-12 education.

That dream is starting to become a reality this year, with Sunrise Academy in Hilliard adding a grade of high school annually for the next four years, completing its high school in 2023, said Principal Mona Salti.

The school has taught grades K-8 since its founding in 1996, when it began with just 10 students, Salti said. The school will start the new year, beginning Sept. 3 for middle and high school students, with 435 students, including four ninth-graders.

“We’re going to make sure we do the very best and establish a very strong Islamic academic experience,” she said.

Salti started as principal at the school four years ago, and she has been trying to expand its footprint and take over a nearby building that is currently occupied, in part, by an urgent care center.

The Islamic Society of Greater Columbus, which founded the school, bought the land that the urgent care center sits on at 5677 Scioto Darby Road in February for a little more than $1 million, according to the Franklin County Auditor’s website. The property is across Veterans Memorial Drive from the existing school building.

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The first phase of the expansion, including adding two high school and three middle school classrooms and a temporary lunch area, will happen with the urgent care center still in part of the building, Salti said. It should be done this month, and then phase two, which will include a large lunch room area, two more classrooms and a meeting space, will begin after the urgent care vacates the space, likely in May, she said.

With the extra space, the school also has been able to expand its preschool by 25 seats, serve a total of 57 students and add an intervention room, where children can be tutored.

The school integrates Islamic values and history into all its subjects, Salti said, so children understand where they came from and learn about the accomplishments of Muslims. For example, Salti said, when teaching about plants, teachers may tell students that they were created by God, in addition to regular academic instruction.

“Our students go through so many things, and especially portrayed in media, negative things about Islam, a lot of our children are losing their identities,” Salti said. “One thing I really try to do is make sure children have a strong Islamic identity.”

High school, in particular, is a time when kids build their identity, she said.

When transitioning to public high school from the Islamic school, many kids experience “cultural shock,” said Imran Malik, who handles community relations for Noor Islamic Cultural Center, a mosque a few miles from Sunrise in Hilliard.

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The expansion is a great opportunity for the community, he said.

“Hilliard and Dublin and the western part of Columbus is definitely a growing melting pot community where there are a lot of different Islamic people,” Malik said. “A high school offers a wider platform for the Muslim community to kind of get a more comprehensive Islamic theology.”

Sabith Khan, an assistant professor at California Lutheran University, authored a book with Shariq Siddiqui, an assistant professor with the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, in 2017 on Muslim American nonprofits and Islamic schools.

In the book, the two state that there are about 230 full-time Islamic schools in the country.

But their purpose is an underexplained topic, Khan said, and there are a lot of misconceptions about them.

Historically, Muslim immigrant parents wanted Islamic schools “to shelter their children from social ills and to preserve Islamic cultural values,” the pair write in the book. Social ills could be Islamophobia, hate crimes and economic stress, according to the book, while the important Islamic values the authors point out include charity, kindness, justice and universal brotherhood, Khan said.

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Saif Nawaz, 38, of Hilliard, sends two of his three children to Sunrise Academy. Though his daughter is entering fifth grade and his son third grade, Nawaz said the news of Sunrise building a high school has prompted him and his wife to reconsider sending their children to public school for middle school, as they had previously planned.

“It’s good that Sunrise is expanding, now it’ll be an option,” he said, adding that he had wanted to start his kids in public school in middle school so they got used to the change in atmosphere before beginning high school. “Now we’re thinking, ‘Should we leave them in Sunrise?’ We are very excited.”

He said it’s likely the family will continue at Sunrise.

The school teaches children “how to integrate into American society with Islamic values,” Nawaz said.

“It’s more about love and respect and the caring aspect of religion,” he said.

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@DanaeKing