Sometimes even the leaders and teachers at Bright Hope Center have a hard time keeping track of what grade the students are in — it always seems to be changing.
The private school on upper State Street founded last year by husband and wife Walid Hawana and Elizabeth Zahdan aims to accelerate students as they progress through the curriculum. With just over a dozen students from five families in kindergarten to high school, Bright Hope is small but familial. High schoolers read to second-graders and kindergartners rush past a group of students studying negative exponents. The walls are adorned with alphabet cards, scientific method posters and signs that say things like, “I’m not here to be average, I’m here to be awesome.” Something for every grade.
At lunch time, the school’s 13 students sit together in a long row of chairs that stretches the length of a room filled with arts and craft, cases of crayons and colored pencils.
Hawana and Zahdan track each student’s progress closely as they inch toward the ultimate goal: graduating from high school. Maybe at age 18, maybe at 17, maybe at 16.
“Daliliah, are we considering you 11th or 12th grade?” Hawana asked one of the students last week.
“She’s in 11th, but she should be graduating this year,” Zahdan said.
“We’re planning for her to graduate but we weren’t sure,” Hawana said. “We plan but no one knows God’s plan.”
One of the school’s ninth-graders has already started to pass Regents exams; a pair of fifth-graders are expected to move to sixth grade after the winter break. Earlier this month, Hawana and Zahdan held a surprise graduation for students ready to move to the next grade.
“I’m in second grade,” Mariam Hawana, the couple’s daughter, said last week. “Well, it was a few days ago I graduated. It was like a surprise, a surprise party.”
While the majority of the students are Muslim and Hawana and Zahdan have backgrounds working in Islamic schools, Bright Hope welcomes all students, offering a strictly secular program unless parents want the students to participate in Islamic studies and prayer. Bright Hope tuition runs $550 per month per student, but three of the students are attending with financial assistance, Hawana said, urging others to inquire if they wonder if the school will be the right fit.
“It’s not an Islamic school, it’s a school that’s just a school,” Hawana said. “Everybody is welcome.”
Less than two weeks ago, Zahdan opened an email with the words she had long been waiting to read: “You all are approved,” an official with the state Education Department wrote. “Congratulations.”
The Board of Regents had officially recognized Bright Hope as a private school.
“I was very grateful to God,” Zahdan said at the time. “I’m in shock, actually.”
Last year, Zahdan and Hawana moved into the second-floor apartment of what had a been a furniture store squeezed next to a church off State Street. They converted the bottom floor, with large windows looking onto the busy road, into the school, not knowing if others would join. They covered the front walls with bookshelves, blocking the view of the road, and partitions cover the windows that look out to the parking lot.
They started with their kids — Mariam and ninth-grader Mohammad Dhailia — and two kids from another family. But they needed more students to make the school viable, so they started beating the bushes, passing out fliers at local mosques and community events.
In early July, when the school was just the four students, third-grader Ismael Malik paired up with Mariam for lessons before they moved through individual assignments at their own pace. Tenth-grader Elham Malik paired up with Mohammad as they tackled the high school curriculum. Hawana taught some lessons, while Zahdan taught others.
After a short math lesson with her mom — who Mariam calls “sister Elizabeth” during school hours — Mariam pointed to dozens of different paper animals hanging from the ceiling like a baby’s mobile. For each of the animals, Mariam colored one side and Ismael Malik colored the other side.
“Ismael made that one and the other side, I made that,” Mariam said, pointing to a black and yellow bumblebee. The two sides looked nearly identical, but on Mariam’s side the teeth were a a rainbow of different colors. “The teeth are colorful.”
Meanwhile, Zahdan drew their attention back to math. They were trying to add multiple sets of the same numbers, an initial dipping-of-the-toe in the multiplication waters, but still addition, Zahdan told her pair of students.
“Did you know I know a little bit of multiplication?” Ismael told Zahdan.
“That’s good,” Zahdan said. “We’ll get to it when we get to it.”
Zahdan’s approach to the math lessons carried over to the slow work of getting state approval – every week a new delay, another challenge, a bureaucratic hurdle.
On the state Education Department website, there’s a checklist of the 21 things any new private school must do before being recognized by the state. By the summer, Zahdan and Hawana had finished 20 of the items, including a curriculum description, city fire inspections and a certificate of occupancy, an academic calendar, all but a letter from the Schenectady school district stating the private school offers an equivalent level of education as the local school district. The letter arrived weeks later.
“It just needs patience and honesty in what you are offering and claiming,” she said of the application she hoped would give Bright Hope the credibility to grow into the future.
School filled with energy
When the 2017 school year officially started at Bright Hope on Aug. 1, a dozen students filled the space. A Schenectady family of five joined as well as students from Albany and a home school family that recently moved from Illinois.
Zahdan walked with 5-year-old Hamim Taha, the school's youngest student, to a bookshelf filled with large-print children’s books.
“I want to read,” said Mariam, stepping up to the bookcase.
Zahdan handed the lesson over to Mariam, who wrestled with the massive book, "The Enormous Carrot," they set out to read. The book was so big that Mariam scrapped an attempt to settle down on a soft chair and instead laid the book out on the ground as she and Hamim sat beside it. But that didn’t work either, so Mariam sat against the chair with the book propped up on her knees.
“Hamim, one day he will be doing the same things she is doing,” Zahdan said. She left the pair of students to themselves, but periodically glanced back in their direction as she moved around the room. “She’s got him occupied, yeah, she is taking care of him.”
The school was filled with more energy than the month before, with both the lower grades and the high school grades doubled or tripled in size. When the six high school students filled a pod of desks in front of white boards, it started to look like a school.
Hawana pulled a pair fifth-graders, Adil Inayat and Ebrahim Zorqane, into his office for a history lesson that also touched on reading, grammar and science. He handed them reading passages, Gallileo for one, Egyptian mummies for the other.
“I want you to go to the computer and click and look for Galileo,” Hawana told Ebrahim. “Who is this guy and what did he do and what did he prove? He tried to prove that when things drop from a high place they go down at the same speed no matter. I want you to know who is this guy, who is this Galileo.”
“What is this word,” Ebrahim asked, pointing to "helioocentric" on his worksheet.
“That’s a dictionary — look it up,” Hawana said. “There is nothing called I don’t know, there is nothing called nobody told me that. We don’t believe in that. We believe in searching for knowledge and education.”
Hawana also engrossed the pair of students with a story about a visit to the pyramids in Egypt, including a crawl through a narrow passage to where a long-ago pharaoh was entombed.
“If you go to Egypt, you can see the mummies,” Hawana said.
“In my other school, I took a field trip to a museum to see a real mummy,” Adil said. “For mummification, you have to take out the brains or something.”
“Yeah, they have to do everything,” Hawana said. As Adil read from his worksheet, they went back and forth over how mummification works.
“I think they leave their heart in,” Adil said.
“They take his brain,” Hawana said.
“I know but they leave the heart in. Don’t they?” Adil said.
“They might but I know they take the stomach out and all the intestines,” Hawana said.
Hawana, who came to the United States from Beirut as a 24-year-old graduate student more than four decades ago, continued his story for the fifth-grade boys giddy over the discussion about what internal organs are removed during mummification.
Hawana’s computer monitor carried a list of words: affable, bureaucracy, eulogy. They were all SAT words he had asked the high school students to use in a writing assignment they were working on. He expects them to use the words in everything they write, part of a constant effort to prepare students for the big tests in front of them: SAT, ACT , Regents and more.
“I do it for all of them, even in eighth grade they will start using them,” Hawana said.
Joined by Asma Kerris, the school’s third teacher who has a doctorate in physics and teaches French and Arabic, Zahdan looked around the school with a smile.
“We have a start, all the seeds in here are good seeds,” Zahdan said.
Darkness then light
Before last year, Hawana and Zahdan both worked at Annur Islamic School in Colonie – he as principal and she as vice principal. Her daughter, Amnah Dhailia, was the first student to graduate high school from Annur. But shortly after that graduation ceremony, Zahdan was fired from Annur. Hawana resigned the next day.
Zahdan filed a complaint last August with the state Division of Human Rights arguing her firing was unjustified. Annur filed a lawsuit in December against the couple, alleging they stole and used confidential Annur school records as they set out to open their new school. Zahdan responded with a counter-claim arguing the Annur suit was retaliation for her human rights complaint.
The lawsuit remains unresolved, and the couple said it doesn’t distract from their efforts at Bright Hope. Annur School Board President Mohamed Osman declined to comment about the ongoing litigation.
“It was something dark in my life, but there was light at the end of the tunnel,” Zahdan said. “That’s where the name came from: Bright Hope.”
Fridays at Bright Hope, are for cooking and independent reading, prayer and study hall. High schoolers work with elementary students or on special projects like a nutritious cookbook.
What about peanut butter and banana sandwiches, someone suggested.
“That’s actually good,” 10th-grader Elham Malik said last week.
“It is good,” 11th-grader Daliliah Cordon agreed.
“You know what it reminds me of?” said Maryam Zorqane, a 10th-grader who was reviewing answers from an American history exam. “It reminds me of Curious George.”
For the parents and grandparents who pick up their kids sometime after 3 p.m., the school’s small size and intensive curriculum are what drew them to Bright Hope.
“The thing I like is there are not a lot of kids, she gives them a lot of attention,” said Nesha Ali, who picked up her grandkids from Bright Hope last week.
“I saw that the lessons they would be having would be more intense, more focused than it would be in public school,” said Yolanda Bristow, grandmother to the two school’s newest students, who moved over from an Albany charter school.
For Mariam, who carried her parents' message about the school and eagerly shared it with anyone who asked, more students was a sign that something right was happening.
“I like how there’s more [kids], the more is great,” Mariam said. “That means there’s a sign we have to keep going. But as I’m saying, I know what it’s about, why we put the school here, because we wanted to helps kids educational and help them learn. We want to help them keep pushing and going forward and not go slow. We want to help kids go forward, keep going.”