Designing Islamic Schools of the Future

ISNA hosts its 11th Annual West Coast ISNA Education Forum

By Susan Labadi

March/April 2023
ISNA President Safaa Zarzour

The 11th Annual West Coast ISNA Education Forum, “Reinvent and Design the Islamic Schools of the Future,” was held on Jan. 13-14 in Orange County, Calif. In collaboration with WISER (Weekend Islamic Schools Educational Resources,, a special weekend schools track was initiated to learn and network with full-time experienced teachers and administrators and to give them access to high-quality subject-matter experts.

Program committee chair Necva Ozgur stated, “Allah gave the answers in the Quran, but He doesn’t open our hearts unless we ask for it.” She noted that most Muslim students attend weekend schools and that WISER is a response to the need to increase and improve their efficacy.

For the second time since its inception in 2020, WISER and ISNA tailored sessions for weekend schoolteachers and leaders. WISER, formed by a group of Muslim educators, seeks to uplift, empower and raise these schools’ standards. Part of this involves educating staff on best practices. 

The sessions included: “Creating a Loving Classroom Community,” “Let’s Do it Right! The Unit Plan Based on Word-Readiness Standards,” “Arabic Language and Quran: Hand-in-Hand in Classrooms,” “Teaching Reading in Sunday School,” “How to Teach Islamic Studies to Touch Students’ Hearts and Effect Change,” “Interactive Arabic Virtual Story Time” and “Differentiated Instruction in Early Elementary.”

WISER’s founders, Necva Ozgur and Dr. Mehmet Ozgur, have dedicated this phase of their lives to serving the 95% of Muslim children who don’t attend full-time Islamic schools, yet deserve to have access to high-quality educational programs.

Attendees had open access to 25 informative sessions. Friday’s celebration banquet featured keynote speaker Dr. Rania Awaad (executive director, Maristan; director, The Rahmah Foundation; professor of psychiatry, Stanford School of Medicine), who holds several certifications (ijaza) and is herself a product of an Islamic school education. Her inspired address cited occasions when Muslims had innovated to meet humanity’s critical needs and prevailed, although confronted by naysayers and resistance. 

Awaad mentioned historical events, such as codifying Arabic with markings to facilitate pronunciation; the tenacity of Munira al-Qubaysi (d.2022; founder, Qubaysi Movement) to find a way to educate women in Islamic sciences from a male scholar and to initiate preschools in Syria; and the fact that Muslims were the first to incorporate mental health wards in their hospitals, which incorporated a holistic approach that recognized the individual’s mind, body and soul.

The event opened with a panel of former Islamic school students: Yasin Conoboy, Hala Khalifeh (Halaballoo), Sondos Kholaki (hospital staff chaplain, community chaplain in Southern California), and Hamza Soboh. Their favorable memories included sentiments of diversity, pride in accomplishments and special events. The greatest benefit was developing a Muslim identity and sense of belonging. Some of these graduates remain connected with peers who share similar values. 

They felt prepared academically for their futures, but thought that schools and parents shouldn’t overly protect them socially to enter college. One panelist stated that he learned healthy gender interactions via PPL — Public, Purposeful, and Limited — so that working with female students was done respectfully and appropriately. This prepared him for life outside of school. They responded “Yes” when asked if they would recommend an Islamic school for their children. 

The panel also included Abir Catovic, Sheikh Tarik Ata (The Orange County Islamic Foundation) and Habeeb Quadri (recipient, the National Distinguished Principal Award) who serves on Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, numerous youth education organizations and has authored five books. Their suggestions included helping students articulate their views through debates and discussions. They also noted that all prophets had worked with their hands, meaning that vocational training could be incorporated into our schools and be encouraged as hobbies. Acknowledging that parents and teachers at these schools make sacrifices, they deemed the results worthwhile.

In his energetic morning keynote speech, Islamic school principal Habeeb Quadri spoke on remembering that leadership drives change. To meet the future’s demands, he declared that we must assess, develop and then strategize; that students must be cognitive global citizens, for they will have digital futures; and that community service should be an active component of every school stakeholder and provide opportunities for parents and children to talk with each other.

ISNA president Safaa Zarzour, who headed two sessions, encouraged school leaders to work with faculty and staff in a culture of trust and stressed the importance of enabling growth and responsibility. When asked about financial difficulties, he advised that some schools have created endowments. In short, save 10% of revenues each year for a term and then use them as later investments to decrease the parents’ burden and give the schools sustainable security. In his second session, the audience tapped into his expertise in legal and HR matters.

While addressing the banquet, Zarzour credited Islamic school educator Abdelnasser Rashid, Illinois’ first elected state representative, for running for office after rejecting the “advice” to change his name or dilute his Muslim American identity. Zarzour emphasized that Islamic school-educated Muslims are making a difference in leadership roles in the U.S. 

In her session, Sufia Azmat (executive director, CISNA), worked with school leaders to discuss varying interpretations of success in “School Accountability Leads to Success.”

Chris Joffe (founder and CEO, Joffe Emergency Services), along with the ISLA team, Lisa Kahler and Samar Al-Majaideh, through an IRUSA grant, discussed emergency preparedness, “[This] is fulfilling the trust (amana), which is aligned with maqasid al-shariah: … maintaining, protecting, and elevating one’s religion, self, mind, wealth and family.” The session featured tabletop scenarios, exercises and access to a toolkit that can be found at

As educators, we see a higher level of mental and mood challenges today than before Covid. The human connections and relationships we enjoy most are what give us mental fortitude, and the pandemic certainly pointed out the relevance and value of social connection. Susan Labadi (founder and president, Genius School, Inc.) offered “Brain Health Matters: What Educators Need to Know” and Dr. Ilham Al-Sarraf Rope (clinical psychology), who has greatly helped the Iraqi community, shared her expertise in “Depression Disorder: Identifying Symptoms, Causations and Interventions.” 

Jihad Saafir (professor, Bayan; the South Coast Interfaith Council’s “2022 Faith Leader of the Year”) captured attention by stating, “Our people need as many positive triggers as they can,” and advised that saying “As-salamu alaikum” reminds us of our Muslim identity. He equated weak identity with deficient socializing influences and remarked that Prophet Mohammad (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) crafted the Islamic environment to support the internalization of religious identity in stages. 

Wadud Hassan (head of school, Good Tree Academy; founder, Mindfulness Matters) delivered “Behavior Intervention Through Islamic Psychology.” Ibrahim Yousef (school principal) presented “The Art of Positive Discipline.” Osman Khan, a faith-based educator and administrator for 21 years, titled his session “Theory of Relativity: A Guiding Dialogue to Proactively Cultivate Student-Teacher Relationships.” In it, he emphasized using elements of pop culture to open the door of receptive relationships with students. Lastly, Adita Arya (weekend school leader; executive director, the Afghan Literacy Foundation) chose to teach “How to Create a Loving Classroom Community.”

Abir Catovic, an experienced educator and administrator who has taught every grade K-12, stated in her “How to Teach Islamic Studies to Touch Students’ Hearts and Effect Change” that the basis of Islamic studies starts with teaching about faith through iman (faith) and the awe of God’s creation. For guidance in Arabic language instruction, Prof. Samar Dalati-Ghannoum (executive board member, the National Arabic Teachers Association; board member, the Arab American Press Guild) spoke on “Teaching Reading in Sunday School” and Lina Kholaki (director, Aldeen Foundation) a member of the team that drafted the Standards of Arabic as a Foreign Language for the 21st century for K-12, presented “Let’s Do it Right! The Unit Plan Based on World-Readiness Standards.” Layla Bahar Al-Aloom (professor, Arabic language; CSUF and Chaffey College) excited the audience with her “Interactive Arabic Virtual Story Time,” and Maria Kouli (dual language coordinator, ELC School, Los Angeles) shared exemplar videos for “Differentiation Instruction in Early Elementary.” Amal Sakr Elhoseiny (Ph.D., comparative studies of the German and Arabic languages; teacher for 20+ years at New Horizon School; a master teacher for Aldeen Foundation; executive board member of NATA K-12; and certified in the Nooraniyyah method) emphasized the art and importance of relating with students, meeting their needs and using brain science to make them feel rewarded and motivated.

Maisa Youssef-Osman (principal, Orange Crescent School) guided the professionalism of instructional design session through her “Understanding by Design: From Student Goals to Standard-Based Planning.” She facilitated the three-step approach of identifying the desired results, determining the acceptable evidence and planning the learning experiences to assess. 

To frame the forum’s theme and give good advice in these confusing times, Fouad Elgohari (senior director, academic affairs, Bayan Islamic Graduate School; instructor and advisor, the Sabeel Traditional Seminary program; and instructor, The Majlis in Southern California) stated, “Don’t follow the rules of society that are always changing. Follow the rules of Allah that don’t change.” In his session, titled “Redefining Islamic Education for the Future,” he set the order of instructional guidance to try to produce good people who worship God. Elgohari eloquently detailed, “It’s one thing to know what Allah wants me to do. It’s another to want to do it.” His progressive sequence was to teach Islam, then iman (faith), and follow it with ihsan (excellence).

Aldeen Foundation, Arabic Daily, Bayan Islamic Graduate School, Amana Mutual Funds Trust and Family Relief USA sponsored the Forum.

Susan Labadi (board officer, WISER) served on the West Coast ISNA Ed Forum Planning Committee.

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