By Adil James, MMNS Southeast Michigan correspondent
Dearborn–November 10–Ordinarily at TMO we focus on Islamic schools, but a special case is Riverside Academy, which is a newborn school that has taken over the building of the American Islamic Academy–the Islamic school once associated with the Islamic Institute of Knowledge which closed its doors due to financial difficulties after the 05-06 school year.
IIK then rented the school grounds to the â€œRiverside Academy,â€ a public charter school.
The parent company that now runs Riverside is Global Education Excellence GEE (available at gee-edu.com). GEE, which runs 7 other charter schools in southern Michigan and northern Ohio (including Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Hamtramck, Dearborn, and Toledo) is a large and apparently very healthy corporation, formed in 1998 â€œto offer the highest quality educational services to public school academies throughout the State of Michigan.â€ Mohammad Issa and Dr. Said Issa formed GEE â€œas a vehicle for developing nurturning educational environments where all children are offered quality educational opportunities.â€
Charter schools are, by law, tuition free, open to all, are required to employ highly-qualified, certified teachers, required to administer state-required standardized tests, and subject to the same health and safety codes as all other public schools.
A charter school, or â€œpublic school academy,â€ as it is known in Michigan, is an independent public school that operates under a performance contract with an institute of higher learning. This contract is known as a charter–the authorizing instiution oversees all aspects of academy functioning.
In the case of Riverside Academy, the institute of higher learning with which it has a contract is Central Michigan University.
The principal of Riverside Academy is Ramzi Saab. He is a highly-trained school administrator with previous experience as principal of the MAYA School on Ford Road in Dearborn, only a few miles from the Riverside Academy.
As principal of MAYA, he explains, â€œwe improved the financial condition of MAYA, improved enrollment, got the academics to improve.â€
His proudest accomplishment regarding Riverside is the almost 50% increase in enrollment compared with pre-charter days. â€œLast year we made a contract with Central Michigan University, and we have gone from 320 students to 450 students, and we have a growing waiting list.â€
He explains that in order not to change the student-teacher ratio, the school has been maintained at the current population despite those waiting.
Mr. Saab emphasizes the improved diversity of Riverside and how attractive the structured environment has been, not only to local Arab students, but also to Hispanic and African American students from Detroit and Mexicantown. Itâ€™s a â€œvery diverse school, including Hispanics, African Americans, as well as Arabs. The majority are Arabs because of the area where the school is–also we have different students from different religions and different colors–and those students are increasing.â€ Explaining the rise in diversity, Mr. Saab emphasizes the â€œvery respectful environment–we do respect all religions.â€
Hajja Khalida Beydoun, a guidance counselor at Riverside, explains that about 95% of the student population is of Arab descent.
The primary change in the direction of the school may be in the more professional and business-oriented style of management. Mr. Saab explains that the school has acquired â€œabout 10 new teachers–they are very highly qualified, certified, and diverse.â€
Although the school does not teach religious subjects, many Muslims from the local community would be excited to know that the school teaches Arabic, currently the only foreign language taught at the school. â€œWe teach Arabic as a second language,â€ explains Mr. Saab. â€œIt is mandatory, because Michigan high school students have to take a foreign language to graduate.â€
But he explains that â€œWe are looking to add more foreign languages in addition to Arabic.â€
Charter schools, as they receive public funding, are unable to teach religious issues. But Riverside, a majority of whose students are of Arabic descent, maintains policies that are culturally amenable to the strictly traditional outlook of Dearbornâ€™s population. There is a dress code which requires uniforms although it does not require hijab. Boysâ€™ and girlsâ€™ classes are separate although there is some contact â€œon a professional levelâ€ at school assemblies and on field trips.
â€œWe do require that students wear uniforms–students and teachers must come to school looking professional,â€ says Mr. Saab.
â€œWe have separate gender classes,â€ he explains, â€œso that students focus on academics–the students and teachers enjoy this very very much.â€ And as a result, says Mr. Saab, â€œour test scores have improved as well as our academics.â€ Students still, he explains, â€œinteract with each other professionally.â€ There are assemblies, and they meet one another in the cafeteria, and on school trips.
Ms. Beydoun explained that even at lunch boys and girls eat in different areas.
The school offers â€œall sportsâ€ after school in physical education, in which men teach boys and women teach girls. In fact, one Arab-American Riverside student is so good at basketball that he is being considered by colleges as a subject for recruitment.
â€œMichigan Tech was interested to check outâ€ this student, explains Ms. Beydoun. â€œWe had one senior last year, Henry Ford Community College checked him out,â€ said Ms. Beydoun, and he ended by receiving a scholarship to attend Henry Ford.
Among other strengths of the school explained by the principal, Mr. Saab, are that â€œWe do offer free tutoring after school, one hour every day, to help students finish their homework–every day.â€
Riverside is on a different level from the Huda School. While the Huda school competes favorably against top national private schools like Detroit Country Day and Cranbrook, Riverside competes very favorably against Detroitâ€™s and Dearbornâ€™s public high schools. But Huda is expensive, costing approximately $4,000 per year, compared to DCDS or Cranbrookâ€™s approximate $15,000 per year per student. And Riverside is free.
Although Riverside does not compete in the same elite class, it is an excellent school with a focused staff of committed counselors, not least among them Ms. Beydoun, who sincerely devote themselves to securing the best possible future for their students.
Indeed, Ms. Beydoun shows an encyclopedic knowledge of her studentsâ€™ achievements, and shows that she is closely and on a daily basis involved in their grades and accomplishments–she rattles off the accomplishments of last yearâ€™s graduates, statistics about the class size and their future plans, and describes with the excitement of a sports fan–or perhaps a proud mother–the intense competition for first, second, and third place in this yearâ€™s graduating class.
â€œThis year, our valedictorian, salutatorian, and third place student are all head-to-head–they are all within .18 of a grade point of one another.â€
She explains that the current valedictorian wants to attend the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, the current salutatorian wants to attend the University of Detroit Mercy to study dentistry, and the current third place student is undecided.
Much hangs in the balance for the top students, since at the University of Detroit Mercy, an incoming student â€œwho is valedictorian, with a 3.5 GPA, ACT of 21 or above, gets a full ride,â€ explains Ms. Beydoun.
â€œWe have a lot of recruiting,â€ she says. â€œJunior year, we bring in all the universities and community colleges that I believe our students are interested in.â€
â€œLast year we had our first graduating class–8 of them got scholarshipsâ€ for college study, â€œand 3 of those were full-ride scholarships. We have 23 seniors this year. 3 seniors plan to attend University of Detroit Mercy, 2 plan to attend UM Dearborn, 7 Iâ€™m aware of plan to attend Wayne State University.â€
60% of them are active in the community. â€œI have about 16 or 17 scholarships lined up–not all are full scholarships. 8 or 9 full scholarships–everyone else is a partial, for academics or community service, or athletics.â€
â€œOur class rankings–our top 5 students, and especially our top 3, are really determined.â€
Commenting on the improvement from last year, Ms. Beydoun cites as a primary reason the larger class size, and the fact that â€œthis class is especially dedicated to academics.â€
â€œOther than that, academicallyâ€ Riverside has excelled since it first opened, she explains.
â€œMany juniors and seniors are doing dual enrollment at community collegesâ€ during the school year. To do this, they have to have a GPA of 3.5 or higher–and their disciplinary records have to be spotless.
â€œBeing a small school, there is more emphasis on academics, more of a one-on-one relationship with teachers.â€