School teaches discipline, faith during holy month


SOUTH RIVER – Students at Darul Arqam School are observing Ramadan with fasting and prayer this month.

Ismael Khalil, principal of the Thomas Street school, said the students are taught the significance of these practices, which take on a special meaning during the holy month.

“We encourage the children spiritually,” Khalil said. “We teach them to recite the Koran and to be nice to their neighbors. We teach them the purpose of fasting.”

The five pillars of Islam include fasting, as well as testifying one’s faith to God, praying five times a day, giving to charity and performing a pilgrimage to Mecca, also known as Hajj, at least once in one’s life.

Fasting during the month of Ramadan, which began last week and continues through Oct. 12, includes abstaining from food and drink during the day. However, young Muslims are also encouraged to pray at night, practice self-control, respect for others and discipline during this time of prayer and reflection, Khalil said.

“If you insult, abuse or curse, there is nothing behind your fast,” he said.

Khalil, 42, of Clifton, holds two master’s degrees – one in educational leadership, the other in elementary education, both from the City University of New York. He has been working in education for 18 years; this is his fourth year as principal of Darul Arqam School.

The Islamic school opened on the site of South River’s former middle school in 2002. The 56,000-square-foot building is located in a residential zone, but its use as a private school is permitted by a local zoning ordinance.

One of just three Islamic schools in New Jersey, the Darul Arqam School serves an important purpose for area Muslims, Khalil noted.

“There was a need for an Islamic school in the community,” he said.

The school began by educating students in four grades, but has since grown to teaching students in preschool through 11th grade, according to Khalil.

Students come from all over the state to attend the school, including southern New Jersey towns like Cherry Hill and Toms River and more northern locales such as Linden and Elizabeth. However, the majority of students are from nearby municipalities such as Old Bridge, Sayreville, Edison, Jackson and Piscataway.

While 60 to 70 children attended the school in its first year, Khalil said the student body has since grown to around 270 students. Students learn a curriculum that is taught similarly at all public and private schools in the state, and the teachers do not need to be Muslim to work at the school. Anyone is welcome to enroll, regardless of whether the student is a Muslim, Khalil said.

Students learn Arabic starting in first grade, but all other classes are taught in English. Students also learn the principles of Islam and the Koran in English, and programs offering other languages to students are being planned.

The students are also able to become involved in local programs such as sports, and the South River Police Department’s DARE program is part of the curriculum.