"Allahu Akbar. God is great."
It's about 12:30 p.m. at a school in Phoenix when that Arabic phrase comes over the loudspeaker, beginning the call to prayer.
Students, from first to 12th grades, enter the central Masjid, or mosque, on their campus.
They stand in lines, hearing the beginning of the prayer. At a certain point, they kneel, touching the carpet with their nose and forehead. They repeat this twice, before standing again and hearing a prayer in Arabic.
Arizona Cultural Academy is a private Islamic school near Baseline Road and 42nd Street in Phoenix. The school, one of only three Islamic schools in the state, has about 250 students and educates them on Islamic culture, in addition to traditional school classes.
Smiling brightly beneath her white hijab, Sarah Syed describes her school. She is clad in a long, light blue tunic and a floor-length black skirt, the uniform for girls at ACA. Boys wear light blue Polo shirts with the academy insignia emblazoned on the left chest, with black pants.
Strolling the halls of her school, Syed, 16, stops to point out the colorful portraits painted on the gray brick walls. ACA is two stories, with classrooms serving each grade and a separate section for pre-elementary students.
"ACA has a family atmosphere," Syed says. "Nothing compares to it. Our teachers are like our aunts."
"Hayya ‘ala-s-Salah. Hurry to the prayer. "
ACA is a nonprofit, federal tax-exempt corporation, created in 1996 to further Islamic education. Several years of research went into the location of the Phoenix school before groundbreaking took place on Sept. 1, 2000. The school opened the following year on Aug. 20, 2001, for students in Montessori through eighth grade.
Jane Smuts become principal last month. Smuts, a South African immigrant to the United States, is not Muslim.
Smuts, an older blonde white woman, wearing purple feather earrings that graze her shoulders, hardly fits the profile for a teacher at an Islamic private school. She teaches secondary social studies and English.
"I was tutoring a few Muslim students and one of the students' parents asked me if I would take a job at ACA," Smuts said. "I applied for the job and fell in love with the kids."
Other than the typical school classes, the school also provides an opportunity for high school students to be more prepared for college.
Smuts coordinates a partnership between the academy and South Mountain Community College. She helps to facilitate associate's degrees for graduating seniors. Students gain course credit in college prerequisites, like math or history, while they are in high school. Syed is in Smuts' 12th-grade English class and is receiving college credit for the course.
ACA also has a Montessori component to its curriculum, where young children are able to fully develop and instill a love of learning. The program is geared to pre-elementary students. Tuition for Montessori, in the 2010-2011 school year, is $6,000 for one student.
For the rest of ACA, from first to 12th grades, calculating tuition rates is more complicated. The school takes a family's total gross income and divides it by the number of family members on the tax form. Depending on what that number is, tuition costs a different amount. For example, one student whose family has a higher per capita income pays $5,975 for one year as opposed to another student whose family has a lower per capita income, who pays $2,975 for each school year.
Smuts says that the idea behind the complicated formula is to "accommodate people" on each end of the financial spectrum. She also mentioned potential scholarships for students, like the Arizona Scholarship Fund or Arizona School Choice Fund, as another source for tuition.
The school is "absolutely privately funded," says Smuts. Tax credits and donations help to fund activities.
The newest addition to the school consists of more classrooms, and a new gym and cafeteria. Students are playing badminton in the sunlit gym as Syed enters. Beside the gym are typical lunch tables.
"We recently had an interfaith visit with St. Matthew's Catholic School," Syed says, pointing to the lunch tables where the students ate Chipotle and mingled with each other.
As for extracurricular activities, the scope of clubs and sports is fairly limited. ACA recently brought in a coach to start a volleyball and basketball team, but the school doesn't play against any others in a competition atmosphere. Smuts says that there is a Storytelling Club and a Cooking Club ("I've never met a community that likes food more," she said) as well as a National Honors Society for all levels of the school.
Guidance or college counselors would also be helpful to the school, Syed said.
Though there are no counselors at her school, Syed has found a mentor in Veneranda Sanchez, a first-grade teacher at the school. A Mexican-American convert to Islam, who was originally Catholic, she decided to "venture out" and explore other religions. The last one she looked at was Islam.
"I went to Catholic school," she said. "I began looking at other religions when I realized that we never questioned anything about what brought us into this life."
Similar to Sanchez, the students consider Islam a significant part of their school experience. Smuts says that prayer is a large part of students' lives, but they are also normal kids.
"They are just regular teenagers," Smuts says, referring to the students. "They care about grades but they also care about things like prayer."
"Hayya ‘ala-l-Falah. Hurry to success."
Syed knocks quietly on classroom doors, entering with a smile. She walks to the traditional classes, like biology, English and math, but also walks into classrooms that teach Arabic, Islamic Studies, or Quran classes.
She has attended ACA since the sixth grade. Syed says "hi, sweetie" to multiple kids that run past her to their classes, calling them "little monsters." A volunteer in the first grade classroom, the senior stops to rub the head of a small girl.
Syed seems particularly excited to enter the first grade classroom. She stops to pick up a crayon off the floor, promising its owner that she will be back at lunch.
Nisa Cortes, 21, graduated from the school in 2007. She had questions about her faith, but found answers at her school.
"It helped me figure out answers to my religious questions," she said. "It also helped me form habits that I carry on now."
Cortes graduated in 2007 after completing a high school degree in three years. The school "gave me (Cortes) opportunities to push myself." Now a doctoral candidate studying family and human development at Arizona State University, she said that the academic rigor at ACA helped her prepare for college.
"A lot of freshmen struggle with deadlines and how to keep studying throughout the semester," Cortes said. "Since I pushed myself at ACA, that transition was easy."
ACA places emphasis on Islam in addition to traditional academics in the school's curriculum. Students pray every day at lunch in the central Masjid, or mosque, in the center of the school's courtyard.
Syed takes off her modest black shoes and enters the mosque, dead quiet in mid-morning. The carpet is alternating light and dark green, and on the wall, a poster decrying "Silence in the house of Allah" is bright red against the muted walls.
"Senior boys sometimes lead the prayer," Syed says, gesturing to the wood podium at the back wall. "An imam has come in before, too. On Fridays, the mosque is open to anyone who wants to pray with us."
The community college experience helps students transition to college from high school after attending ACA. Though the associate's degree program was not in place while Cortes was at the school, her brother and sister benefited from the program.
Syed is confident of her future and is still "confused" as to what she will study.
"I've been accepted to Arizona State University and I applied to Barrett, the Honors College," she said. "As for what I want to study ... I'm not quite sure yet. I'm interested in medical engineering, business, English so we will see."
"Assalaamu alaykum. Peace be upon you."
Syed says this Arabic phrase each time she enters a classroom. The teachers respond back with the same phrase, seeming at ease with the high school senior.
In a school of only about 250 students, the small size can be both a benefit and a drawback, according to students.
"My favorite thing about the school was also my least favorite," Cortes said. "It's very small, so everyone knows everyone. Teachers know you on an individual basis, but when I went to ASU, I was anxious to meet new people and have larger class sizes."
Though Cortes was anxious to meet new people, Syed appreciates the smaller class sizes offered by ACA.
"I think it's a good size because everyone knows everyone," she says. "I think if it were bigger by 100 people, it wouldn't be the community we have now."
The community feel is facilitated through the shared religion of Islam.
Smuts is describing her school next to a kaleidoscope of fruits on a conference room table. A bag in the office reads, "Please donate fruit to St. Matthews." She apologizes for the clutter, but explains that most of the parents "donate so generously" because charity is one of the main tenants of Islam.
Cortes mentioned that the school choir sang often in interfaith concerts with other faiths because of the "push for community service" at the school.
Diversity is also encouraged within the school's walls. Smuts doesn't wear a hijab and says that she was "never asked" to wear one. She laughs and says the reason may be that the school wants more diversity.
Syed also mentions diversity as a reality at her school. Students at the school are Afghani, Somali, Ethiopian or, in the case of Sarah, Pakistani. Her parents are from Pakistan and she speaks Urdu, one of the official languages of Pakistan, at home. Arabic, she says with a laugh, is more difficult for her to master.
The academic rigor of the school is tough, but it eventually pays off for the students.
"These students are academically stronger than any others I've seen," Sanchez said. She calls up a first-grade boy, who fluently reads Arabic from his book. "Learning Arabic is completely different from any other foreign language, so that helps students to learn in a different way."
Arabic helps to create a culture at the school among the students.
"I know that Islamic Studies is important to students because they enjoy learning about their history," Smuts said. "They have pride in who they are."
As for Syed, her religion remains the most important facet in her life.
"Without my faith, I wouldn't be the person I am today," she says.
Syed also mentions that schools like hers are vital to the community of Muslims across the country.
"The school is perfect for the growing Muslim community," she says. "The community doesn't have a springboard to learn about their faith and would have no identity in public schools. Sitting around, people who look the same as you and who have the same values as you means more than anything else."
• Anna Gunderson is a student at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University, and a former intern at the AFN.