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Muslim, Jewish and Christian families say values taught at home are reinforced in faith-based schools

Labeeqa Shahid gives her little sister, Labeena, a hug while her parents look on. Usman Shahid and his wife, Ayesha, made the decision to educate Labeeqa, 7, in a more traditional Muslim fashion by sending her to Ahmadiyya Elementary School in Mississauga. Labeena, 3, is not yet in school.Glen Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Whatever their religion, parents often send their children to a faith-based school for the same reason: a desire to instill strong values and beliefs in the next generation.

For three Ontario families – Muslim, Jewish and Christian – different factors led them to choose a private school of their religion. But a common thread among them is a belief that a faith-based education promotes continuity between home and school.

For some, the decision to select a private religious school is unexpected.

Parents Usman and Ayesha Shahid, both born in Pakistan, planned to send their first-born child, Labeeqa, to a Toronto public elementary school and enrolled her in kindergarten for two years.

But last fall, following sustained criticism by some immigrant communities and social conservatives that Ontario’s 2015 updated sex-ed curriculum was too explicit and age-inappropriate, the Shahids enrolled their daughter in Grade 1 at Ahmadiyya Elementary School, a private Muslim school in Mississauga. This fall, she enters Grade 2 at the school, which has doubled enrolment to 175 students since it was set up three years ago in response to demand from Muslim parents opposed to the provincial health curriculum.

“We didn’t think it was appropriate for our kids to learn certain things they are teaching now, like the health education,” says Ms. Shahid, who attended public school in Pakistan. “That was the prime reason.”

Mr. Shahid, a graduate of Toronto public schools and the University of Toronto, says “even outside of religion, for a child we thought it was too much exposure at that age.”

Mr. Shahid, an editor and translator in the department of publications for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at, a national Muslim organization, says he and his wife would prefer their daughters, Labeeqa, 7, and Labeena, 3, learn about sex education at puberty.

The new Conservative government, elected in June, moved ahead on its vow to scrap the 2015 curriculum. It has promised a new round of consultations with parents, and in the meantime has directed public-school boards to use a “revised, interim curriculum,” based on a 1998 document on sexual health, this school year. Various groups have spoken out against the government’s plan to have students learn from a curriculum that dates back 20 years.

“I feel there is too much confusion so at this point we are going to keep her [Labeeqa] in the private school,” says Mr. Shahid. “We will wait to see how things pan out for next year.”

Though employed by Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at, Mr. Shahid says he and his wife planned to send their children to public school until the sex-ed controversy.

At his daughter’s school, adjacent to an Ahmadiyya mosque, students begin the day with a prayer assembly. For the rest of the day, save for a 20-minute afternoon prayer break, the students are in class for subjects covered by the Ontario curriculum. Among extracurricular activities, students this year raised $2,500 for the Terry Fox Foundation and $2,000 for a new Toronto-area hospital.

Since its opening, initially offering Grade 1-3 classes, the school has added one grade a year and will offer Grade 6 this fall. Over time, Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at hopes to attract enough students to introduce a high-school program, says education director Hameed Mirza.

With busing, parents pay tuition of $2,500 a child, with the school providing some scholarships and need-based subsidies.

In Ontario, except for the Catholic separate schools, no public dollars pay for operations of private religious schools. By contrast, other provinces provide up to 50 per cent of per-student operating costs depending on how closely private religious schools follow the provincial curriculum.

Jenny and Randy Frisch chose Robbins Hebrew Academy in Toronto for their children: Lila, left, Ethan and Ryan.Handout

For Jenny and Randy Frisch, the decision to select a Jewish day school came after considerable discussion and visits to several contending schools. At the time, they lived in a north Toronto neighbourhood with an academically strong public elementary school adding to their choices.

Mr. Frisch attended Jewish day elementary and high schools but says his wife, educated at public and Jewish schools, was “skeptical at first” about a religious school for their first child, Ethan.

In the end, they chose Robbins Hebrew Academy (Mr. Frisch attended the school under its previous name) for its reputation for strong academics, “critical thinking” pedagogy and Judaic studies that explore moral and ethical issues. The day is split between English and Hebrew language classes.

“The strength of the academics at RHA is one of the reasons we ultimately chose it and everything else that has come from it, not just the Judaism,” says Ms. Frisch, a social worker. “It was important for our children to understand who they are as Jews and to have the understanding of what it is to be a Jew in the world.”

All three Frisch children, aged 11, 9 and 6, attend RHA.

“We both have really fallen in love with the school in terms of what it stands for,” says Mr. Frisch, a software company founder. “Not just faith-based [teaching], but morals.”

Through projects and inquiry-based learning, students learn about Jewish history, culture and the philosophy of Tikkun olam (Hebrew for repairing the world) that teaches about kindness, empathy and social justice.

At RHA, the first Jewish day school in Ontario to be accredited by the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools, tuition is about $17,500 a child (less for nursery school and kindergarten), with financial assistance available.

The Van de Kemp family of Fairview, Ont.: Jordan, Isaac, Micah, Eleanor, Jeriah and Amy. The children attend Stratford and District Christian School. What makes the private-school investment worthwhile, Ms. Van de Kemp says, 'is what the kids come home with: They are happy when they get off the bus.'Jennifer Lewington

For the Van de Kemp family of Fairview, Ont., parents Jordan and Amy knew all along they would send their four children, aged 4 to 11, to Stratford and District Christian School.

“We assumed that was the direction we would head in,” says Mr. Van de Kemp, co-owner with his wife of a car repair service. “Our [Christian Reformed] church supported it and there were a lot of kids that [eldest son] Micah already knew would be going to this school.” Mr. Van de Kemp attended public school for six years, unhappily he recalls, and later was home schooled for two years. He graduated, with fond memories, from a Christian high school near Kitchener.

Ms. Van de Kemp attended a Christian-affiliated school through Grade 12. As a child and youth worker, she spent a short time in the public school system and later two years with Stratford and District Christian School as a part-time education assistant.

At the school, with 140 students and seven full-time equivalent Ontario-certified teachers, the day begins with 20 minutes of prayer, followed by classes that follow the provincial curriculum except for Bible-infused teaching of evolution and sex ed (the latter delayed to senior elementary grades), and three classes a week of Bible study.

“We feel strongly as parents that we need to train our kids to be able to stand up and handle the world we live in,” Ms. Van de Kemp says.

She sees no risk that faith-based schooling isolates her children from the world as they are enrolled in a variety of non-denominational activities in their communities. “So for school at this point, we have chosen to keep them out of that public sphere, but we also have made a concerted effort to put them in the public sphere in different ways,” she says.

Like his wife, Mr. Van de Kemp says the religious-school option ensures that values taught at home are echoed at school. “Now is the time to build a [moral] base that they can build off,” he says of his children. “Not that we shelter them, but they do need direction at this point and a moral compass – and knowing what is right and wrong.” Adds Ms. Van de Kemp: “We don’t feel like they come home and we have to deprogram them.”

For their four children, the Van de Kemps pay $14,500 in tuition, including busing. What makes the investment worthwhile, Ms. Van de Kemp says, “is what the kids come home with: They are happy when they get off the bus.”

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