The age and authenticity of the Clara Mohammed Elementary School instantly shows on the building’s retro triangular façade.
Other details about the school show its longevity, too. Things such as the circa 1980s cafeteria booths and tightly packed library shelves are testaments to the school’s staying power and its 30-year existence.
Director Safiyyah Shahid touts the school as the county’s beacon of educational inclusion, as it is DeKalb’s only African-American Muslim private school.
“From a historical standpoint we were established as an inclusive alternative. The curriculum and ideals of American education did not embrace or recognize African Americans and certainly didn’t embrace Muslims,” Shahid said.
“This school represents the concept of independent education, which is critical to our nation and community,” she added.
Since the school was founded in January 1980, Shahid said, it has grown by leaps and bounds – one of its largest moves being the addition of the W. D. Mohammed High School in 1988.
“From 1980 to 1988 we only taught grades K-7,” marketing and public relations director and daughter of the school’s director Crystal Shahid said.
“But in 1988 a group of parents unwilling to send their graduating students to public sch ool got together and devised a plan. That year, because of them, we got an eighth grade and in 1989 a ninth grade and the next year a 10th grade and so on until in 1992 the school graduated its first class,” she added.
Shahid a member of the first graduting class. Her photo hangs in the lobby of the high school as a commemoration to that pioneering class of students.
Today there are 70 students at the high school, which sits in a separate building behind the elementary school.
The SACS-accredited W.D. Mohammed High School has a proven academic record, such as its 99 percent graduation rate.
Teachers said the secret to the school’s success are parents and a disciplinary environment that allows faculty and staff to treat students as family.
“The great part of the school is that the parents make their presence known,” said Quran Shakir, lead English teacher at the high school.
“One reason I work here and have sent my five children here is that we’re a family. The idea of educating your own and taking control of what happens to your children and what goes into their brains is important,” she added.
Contrary to popular belief, Shakir said, Islamic education does not mean the students are inundated with religion – it’s more about a way of life.
“When I teach English I’m teaching from the perspective of the Quran. So when they study The Scarlet Letter we start by talking about what does Allah tell us about chastity, gossiping and protecting the community,” Shakir said.
“The math teacher is going to do that the same thing and so will the social studies teacher and science,” she added.
Shakir has worked at W.D. Mohammed for 22 years and will receive her doctorate degree in education soon–still she earns a fraction of what public school teachers do. A $20,000-a-year salary is what the school’s 35-person faculty and staff receive.
“It’s a sacrifice, but we do it for love,” she said.
When the school originally opened in 1965 on Bankhead Highway, teachers didn’t get paid at all and for that reason and others it closed in 1976.
When the Nation of Islam’s leader Elijah Mohammed died in 1975, his son took over and sent new spiritual leaders to the different Muslim communities throughout the United States. Atlanta got Imam Ibrahim Pasha, a man with high regard for teachers, and changed policies to assure they were paid.
One policy that Pasha kept was prayer time in school. Muslim’s are required to pray five times daily.
Every day at about 12:50 p.m. a student calls the Adthan, which means prayer time. The 150 elementary school students and those at the high school prepare by taking a short ablution – washing their hands and faces.
The gym is converted into a Musallah, or prayer area. The younger students pray in their classrooms.
And for the school’s 10 percent Christian population it is a time for meditation or reflection.
“We encourage reflective time for all students. Our school is very inclusive so do what you must, but reflect. We recognize all of the prophets and religions,” Shahid said.
To include parents in need of financial relief school officials developed the B.O.L.D. scholarship worth $140 for students in kindergarten through eighth grades – decreasing the monthly tuition from $490 to $350.
“The purpose was to increase enrollment, but that’s proven to be challenging,” Shahid said.
“You can call our parents the working poor. Enrollment has not increased as we expected and we never thought folks would still be paying their tuition late,” she said.
Facing a $10,000 shortfall, Shahid said the school has to tighten its expenditures belt and that she’s going to put her fundraising hat on.
“We’re thinking of how to do more with less. We’re asking ourselves some tough questions. What can we change? How can we maximize what we have?” she said.
“We’re in the process of reinventing ourselves so that we can sustain ourselves.”