The small group of boys dressed in suits and ties filed with precision into the sanctuary at the Muhammad University of Islam School No. 20 to begin the day with prayer and a motivational talk.
“Every day, you should have a goal, no matter how small,” said Minister Wasim Muhammad, who oversees the school and heads the adjoining temple of about 300 members.
The boys seemed to listen intently, sitting with perfect posture, hands crossed in their laps. Then after prayer, they were dismissed from the sanctuary, and three teachers rushed out to their small classroom to begin instruction.
This is a typical morning at the tiny K-12 school, among only a handful in the region affiliated with the Nation of Islam. Located on a busy corridor on Haddon Avenue in Camden’s Parkside neighborhood, it educates 16 children — nine of whom are Muhammad’s own — on basic academics and the tenets of their religion for three hours a day, four days a week.
A former social studies and special education teacher in the district, Muhammad, who is also president of Camden City School District’s advisory board, started the university in 2011 as part of Muhammad’s Temple of Islam No. 20.
The school follows the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam from 1934 until his death in 1975 and pushed for independent Black-owned schools and businesses. The school is closed on Tuesdays to allow children time with their families (although open for 180 days) and the sexes are educated separately — boys in the morning and girls in the afternoon — which officials believe limits distractions.
Yet not all the students are Muslim.
Christine Mensah of Delran, who is Christian, said she was pleased with the education her son, Nylikem, 4, and daughter, Selinam, 7, are receiving. She transports them daily for the 20-minute ride to school.
”It’s worth the sacrifice,” said Mensah, 36, a grant writer. “They’re getting a superior education. They’re happy here.”
The school runs on $150-a-week tuition, with scholarships for students in need, as well as donations to the temple. And like other private and parochial schools in New Jersey it gets resources such as textbooks, laptops, science lab supplies, or support services for eligible students, but does not receive direct state or federal funding.
Because of the small enrollment at the independent school, the teachers have different grades and learning levels within one class. The children are divided mainly among early childhood, elementary, and high school. The school can accommodate 50 students but has opted for a smaller enrollment during the pandemic.
On a recent morning in Sister Kathryn Muhammad’s K-3 class, several boys got a lesson in chess, learning the pieces and how to set up the board.
Ahad Muhammad, 6, a kindergartner, placed pieces, and excitedly shouted: “White is first!”
”Chess is a peaceful and a quiet game,” she told the class. “It helps you to focus in other ways in life.”
Muhammad and the school‘s two other teachers are certified educators who previously worked in the city’s traditional public schools but wanted the opportunity to teach in a Muslim school.
“This is my community,” said Muhammad. “This is really where I wanted to be. I always wanted to teach my own.”
Besides chess, the students also study Arabic, art history, and music theory once a week. The core subjects are math, science, language arts, and civics. The older students have science labs on Fridays and read Black-centered books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
“The focus here is on academics, knowledge of self, character, and discipline,” said Sister Norah Muhammad, who teaches a general civilization class and oversees women at the temple. Students must also attend a business class to learn how to set up their own ventures.
The older students begin every session with a writing prompt or essay topic already written on the board when they enter the classroom of Sister Chabree Muhammad, the school’s director.
After writing in journals for about 20 minutes, eighth grader Wasi Muhammad and his brother Haleem, both 14, switched to solving precalculus problems. Neither has ever attended a public school.
”I just feel like the school fits my life,” said Haleem, who enrolled in the school as a preschooler. “They teach us more here.”
During music class later in the day for elementary girls, Kathryn Muhammad played snippets of classical music and asked them to identify the composer. Hands shot up quickly.
”I know it’s Bach,” answered one girl.
A former special education teacher in the district, Chabree Muhammad said the school uses the same textbooks as those used in the Camden school district, but the curriculum allows students to better focus. Students are permitted to participate in sports programs in the public schools, and parents are encouraged to enroll their children in community activities and art and music lessons, she said.
”The biggest difference is that most of the children understand that they came here to learn,” she said. “They’re not here to socialize.”
Senior Waasiya Muhammad, one of Wasim Muhammad‘s daughters, said she transferred to the school in second grade. She attends classes with a sister, Hasina, 16, a sophomore.
“I don’t think I’m missing anything,” said Waasiya, 17, an aspiring orthodontist. “It’s better to be here.”
About 10 students have graduated from the school since it opened, with most enrolling afterward in trade schools or college, like Safdar Muhammad, 19, the only son of Kathryn Muhammad. He recently completed his freshman year at Harrisburg Institute, majoring in e-sports management.
”I feel like I not only received a good education but the best education,” said Safdar.
While school is still undergoing the accreditation process, it operates as if it were homeschooling, which allows its students to qualify for college, Wasim Muhammad said. Students don’t take standardized state tests or get a traditional high school diploma, he said.
Muhammad, who became president of the nine-member Camden schools advisory board in 2020 after the sudden death of longtime board member Martha F. Wilson, believes in school choice, which is popular in the district: About 10,000 students in Camden attend charter and Renaissance schools, while about 5,800 are enrolled in its traditional public schools.
Yet critics believe the founding of his school poses a conflict of interest with his involvement with the board, which reports to state-appointed Superintendent Katrina McCombs under the 2013 state takeover of the troubled school system. The state School Ethics Commission twice dismissed complaints against Muhammad that alleged that his role as board president placed his private school at an unfair advantage to receive special treatment.
McCombs, his former high school classmate, declined repeated interview requests. District spokesperson Valerie Merritt said, “It would not be appropriate to comment specifically on the educational services provided by a specific school.”
Born Donnie Walker, Muhammad, 54, grew up in Parkside and graduated from Camden High School, where he played on the 1986 championship basketball team with now-Mayor Vic Carstarphen, his childhood friend.
A rising political player in Camden, Muhammad has purchased properties near the school and wants to create a $10 million university campus to include a coffee shop and bookstore and an arts center. He also operates a day-care center a block from the school.
”So many people look to him for leadership in our community,” Carstarphen said. “That’s my guy.”