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Principal at Woodside Muslim School Urges Students To Be Civically Engaged

 Ghassan Elcheikhali is the principal at the Razi School, a Muslim nonprofit private school in Woodside.
Ghassan Elcheikhali is the principal at the Razi School, a Muslim nonprofit private school in Woodside.
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DNAinfo/Jeanmarie Evelly

WOODSIDE — Ghassan Elcheikhali wants his students to be active in their communities.

The 61-year-old educator is the principal at Razi School, a Muslim nonprofit private school on Queens Boulevard at 55th Street where he's worked since 2001. The school serves roughly 250 students from kindergarten to 12th grade.

"We have a multicultural setting," said Elcheikhali, who is originally from Lebanon. "The backgrounds of the students come from all over the world."

In addition to having high academic standards — most Razi seniors take Advanced Placement and college-level courses their final year — the school looks to create leaders and civically engaged citizens, he said.

"A leadership program more than just an education program," is how Elcheikhali describes it.

He does this by having students get involved in clubs and activities within the school, but also outside of it.

Kids knock on doors to register their neighbors to vote, they fundraise for humanitarian causes, and the school regularly invites political leaders and other local organizations to attend its events.

"This type of participation makes the students feel somehow they are a part of this society, they're not sitting on the sidelines," Elcheikhali said.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What would you describe as the mission of the school?

Educating our children. The main mission is to create the opportunity for our children to achieve very high standards in education. We are considered, even by the Board of Education, an elite school on academic levels, and our kids achieve high in all the state exams, state and city exams, as well as [the SATs].

The second part, we work on it in different levels, which is to have our students engaged with their community.

When you live in isolation, you have the outside world look at the Muslim student or Muslim community from whatever [the] media, you know, reflects or portrays. We don't want them to feel...no, we are a part of it and anyone can achieve their goal as long as they are part of something, they engage in something.

For that reason, we set up several interfaith programs ... Throughout the year, we arrange to invite rabbis to talk about Judaism ... We've invited priests to talk about Christianity. [We do this in order] to have the students reach out, to access the common ground that they share with other faiths.

What would you consider your biggest accomplishment?

I feel proud of my students. When I go see our graduates, they are so active. Some of them, they become doctors, some of them are lawyers, some of them they become engaged in different parts of civil organizations and they're more active in their communities.

Tell me about your student body — it sounds like you have a very diverse group of students.

We have one event, in March, we call it "International Day." We have exhibitions in the school where each country will display the past, present and the future of their country.

In addition to that, parents will cook their local dishes and they bring them in... Students will wear their traditional costume and clothes from their culture and their background and they have a celebration. They parade with their home country’s flag. They present their country. We play the national anthem of their country.

It is a very good time for the students to get to know each other, to minimize differences and stereotypes of other people.

What role does faith play here?

We teach, in our curriculum, religion, Islamic studies. The Muslim world, it has so many sects — like in the Christian [faith] you have Orthodox, you have this church and that. We teach the basic or the common Islam that's shared by all of the others, before they start making different sects to each group. And we will have the students freely to practice their own sects without any prejudice from one group toward the other.

We give them the foundation [that] being different is the key for richness, not the key for conflict.