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Embracing the Herndon Community

Academy teaches the importance of identity and community support.

Walking up to the dry-erase board at the front of the pre-school classroom, Afeefa Syeed, co-director of the Al Fatih Academy in downtown Herndon points to the rows of Arabic and English writing.

"For instance, these are the 'S's' of Ramadan, so we'll go over these words and sound them out with both the English and Arabic writing," Syeed said, pointing to the words "sabr," meaning patient, and "shukur," meaning thankful. "So we use a lesson like this to show our students that Ramadan is not just about fasting."

Syeed is one of the founders of the Al Fatih Academy, an 80-student private Muslim elementary school built into an old white, wood-paneled home at the corner of Jackson and Adams Streets in downtown Herndon.

While it is an Islamic Institution, the school is anything but a strictly religious academy. Utilizing an educational curriculum and schedule built around Fairfax County Public School District, it brings its children all of the educational content of other schools, but with special attention paid to the traditions of Islam and the experience of being a Muslim in the United States, Syeed said.

The school is so popular, there are waiting lists for students at every grade level, she added.

ITS TITLE ALSO ESPOUSES this commitment of education of the broader world and its application to Islam, Syeed said.

"'Al Fatih' means opening and increasing, and we chose that because our goal is to open the minds of the children to everything that is around them," she said. "It is to help them understand their identities as part of their community and also as citizens of our country."

A large part of that is the presence of the traditional values of Islam that are built into lessons, according to Pervin Divleli, co-director of the Al Fatih Academy.

"We try to infuse our curriculum with common Islamic teachings, and that's what you can see in our lessons on peace, for instance," Divleli said. "Unlike public school where you can go the whole day and never mention God, here we can relate our lessons to our religion."

A LARGE PART of their lessons involves being in tune with the community, and its prime location, roughly in the center of Herndon, has allowed the school to quickly connect with the town, Syeed said.

"We really have the opportunity to take an active role in the community," Divleli said. "We walk to the library, we walk to the Farmer's Market, it's a great feeling for everyone at the school to be an active neighbor."

That feeling of being closely tied with the community makes all the difference for the students and teachers, according to Syeed.

"Herndon is home, and when I say that I mean it in a physical sense as well as the psychological sense," said Syeed, who is a graduate of Herndon High School.

The school regularly meets with community leaders like Town Council members and Herndon Mayor Steve DeBenedittis.

"All the students call him 'Mayor D,' because a lot of them can't pronounce his name," Syeed said.

But the participation doesn't stop with visits from town officials.

"They have a lot of concern for the environment and they're always looking for new ways to help," said Herndon community forester John Dudzinsky, who visits the school to speak with the children about nature on a regular basis. "They're always out there volunteering and putting a hand in with all kinds of community projects."

The school is the first to adopt and maintain the stretch of Adams Street which runs past it.

THEIR METHODS have gotten them attention from both national and foreign dignitaries, as visitors of the state department often tour the Al Fatih Academy during trips to the United States to gain an understanding of building a teaching method around the lessons of Islam, Syeed said. The group was also invited to by President Bush in the fall of 2002 to come to the White House to have a conversation with the president and share their perspectives and concerns in the world.