It can be challenging to teach about religion in public schools.
People care deeply about their own beliefs and how religion is presented to their children in the classroom. A misstep or even a perceived one can upset parents, draw the attention of elected officials and put a school’s teaching practices under a microscope.
That is exactly the pressure cooker of emotion and accountability a Nashville charter school found itself in at the start of the academic year.
Coptic Christian parents took issue with the way Islam was being taught to their children in a 7th grade social studies class at STEM Preparatory Academy. Specifically, they raised concerns about an assignment that used an excerpt from an Islamic text that they felt put other religions in a bad light.
Some approached the school directly and began working with the administration to resolve their concerns. But some parents eventually escalated the matter to a Metro Nashville Public School board member for intervention.
“We do not want our children to be indoctrinated or to be told, either explicitly or in a covert way, which religion is ‘superior,'” they wrote in a letter sent in December to Will Pinkston, the District 7 school board member.
“We want our children to learn about other faiths equally in an objective way from a historical perspective which should be the aim of any religion course and any public funded school.”
Pinkston alerted Dennis Queen, the executive officer of Metro Nashville Public School’s Office of Charter Schools, about the parents’ concern.
Pinkston thinks teaching students about all religions is critical, but was uneasy with the use of the religious texts in the assignment and said he would feel the same if they were Bible verses.
“These issues are a very slippery slope,” said Pinkston, a charter school critic. “If this was involving the Bible in a traditional school, we could very easily end up in federal court.”
Queen said the assignment in question did not violate the state’s academic standards since religious texts can be used in the classroom as long as they are for educational purposes only.
“We found it to be already cleaned up and fixed prior to our engagement,” Queen said.
When the parents first raised their concerns at the beginning of the academic year, STEM Prep leadership met with them to find a resolution, said Kristin McGraner, the founder and executive director of the school.
“It’s really important to us as a school that we continue to honor the diversity of our families,” McGraner said in a recent interview with the USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee. “And that we also continue to do what we’re obligated to do in teaching the standards.”
STEM Prep, which started in 2011 and specializes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, has a diverse student body. Nineteen different languages are spoken by students and their parents, the school’s website states.
McGraner said she thinks teaching about religion is important, but complex work regardless of a school’s diversity.
The concerned parents of STEM Prep students want their children to learn about other religions, said Mina Mossad, who is serving as a community representative for the parents. But the parents did not want the school to use verses they thought were offensive, he said.
Mossad helped put together the letter to Pinkston that he hoped would bring more attention to their concerns.
McGraner said that letter sent in December surprised her given that school leadership had already met with parents and started working together on solutions.
“It was never the intent for the letter to kind of be an attack on STEM Prep or faculty,” Mossad said. “Matter of fact, we’ve been in this a few months, developed a beautiful partnership, one I think other schools and parents and communities should sort of model their relationships on.”
The letter, signed by 28 people, singled out the inclusion of one particular Hadith in the assignment:
“The Messenger of Allah (blessings of Allah be upon him and his family) has said: ‘Brighten up your houses through the recitation of the Qur’an, and do not make them (your homes) like graves, similar to what the Jews and Christians have done (by not performing the prayers and worship of God in their house and limiting this to the Synagogues and Churches).'”
The Hadith, which is a report of the sayings and actions of Muhammad and his companions, is one of several the assignment asked the students to read and annotate.
“The goal here isn’t to necessarily shelter the Coptic Christian parents and the students, but to do that where no parent or no student finds anything offensive in the curriculum,” Mossad said.
‘A better choice could have been made’
Other hadiths exist that celebrate the illumination of homes with the Quran and recitation of prayer without taking jabs a Christians and Jews, said Richard McGregor, a professor of religion and Islamic studies at Vanderbilt University.
“A better choice could have been made,” McGregor said.
McGregor reviewed five pages of the assignment provided to the USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee. They included 15 hadiths, which McGregor called typical and rather balanced in tone. But he questioned the pedagogy of using isolated verses to teach about a religious tradition.
Plus, Coptic Christians and Muslims in Egypt have a history of tense relations. Coptic Christians globally are often sensitive to that tension, McGregor said. Muslims also are sensitive to their religion and community being put in a negative light, he said.
The assignment was a part of a unit meant to highlight the similarities across civilizations and religions, McGraner said. It also included a component on Christianity.
“We did not do a strong enough job of preparing our newest teachers to get that assignment all the way right,” McGraner said. “We are so deeply committed to getting this all the way right every single day for all of our students.”
When concerns were first raised at STEM Prep, the school offered to give students an alternative assignment or move them to another course, McGraner said.
The school also urged the first families that approached them to share their concerns with the state’s standards committee by providing contact information and offering to help them craft a response, she said.
By the time Queen began his investigation, more changes had been made.
In a Jan. 11 letter to McGraner, Queen said the teacher revised her lesson plans “to remove potentially sensitive material” and the school has revised the entire language arts curriculum. The school leadership team will review each assignment before being taught, the letter said.
Queen also recommended that in the future STEM Prep teachers should stick to the key figures, sacred texts and basic beliefs of each religion, the letter states.
If a teacher wants to go beyond that, they should provide two weeks notice if they have a specific assignment that would include reading or citing religious text, the letter states. The school also should provide students and families with the educational rationale for including them and give students an opt out option.
Other steps taken include having STEM Prep’s curriculum team continue to ensure all selections are sound, McGraner said. The school also will adopt the 2019 state social studies standards and STEM Prep is seeking input from some of their parents on the potentially sensitive areas of instruction, she said.
“That’s one of the biggest resolutions in our mind is this,” Mossad said. “How we’re working together with school administrators and teachers preventing something like this from happening in the future.”
Mossad thinks open communication was key to finding a resolution. He said escalating the matter to the school board level could have been avoided if they had made certain to exhaust all communication avenues first.
In the end, the experience has strengthened the relationship between the school and the Coptic Christian community, Mossad said. It is a relationship Mossad expects will be long-lasting.
If students were taught about the actual sacred texts and beliefs of Muslims, it would be Muslims complaining to the school. They don’t want you to know the truth.
Looking at the school’s board of directors one finds a Mohamed Shukri of The Daban Group. Further research finds he also goes by the name of Mohamed-Shukri Hassan and he is a Somali refugee who works to bring more Muslims into the United States.e
And Shukri Hassan is listed as the public relations person for the terror-linked Al-Farooqi mosque in Nashville. In fact, Shukri had the audacity to defend his mosque after one of its members killed a U.S. serviceman in an admitted jihad attack in Tennessee, stating:
“For his father to say that in a hearing is absurd. I think he has a limited knowledge of his son,” Al-Farooq spokesperson Mohamed Shukri said.
Shukri should be no where near a school let alone a board member.
Nashville has a large and growing Islam problem. Shukri and Islam in public schools is just part of it. Archives here.