As World Cup fever drains my students of the last vestiges of their attention span, I am reminded of one of my proudest moments as a teacher. During my 3rd year at my old school, I won an award that, until now, I have never been able to speak about: the Golden B.O.O.O.T. A takeoff on the European Golden Boot that is awarded to the premier league’s most prolific scorer, ours stood for the “Best of Our Obsequious Testimonials.” It consisted of a heavily used L.L.Bean work boot that had been gilded and mounted. Winners were not allowed to display their award publicly but were rather encouraged to hang it on the inside of a closet or some other lightly visited area. The Golden B.O.O.O.T was bestowed each spring to the member of the faculty who was best able to craft recommendation letters that transformed generally dull students into compelling candidates. If ever there were a prize custom tailored to my skill set, this was the one.
The counselor recommendation, which aims to encapsulate the social, academic, and personal qualities of each graduating senior in a one-page letter while smoothing out some of the rough spots on their transcripts, is the area where a counselor has the greatest ability to put his/her finger on the scale of college admissions. And I take this responsibility seriously.
The outsize success of Al-Noor Academy in college admissions is one of the most remarkable features of a remarkable institution. Our tuition (topping out at roughly $8750) is by orders of magnitude the lowest of any school in the Niche Top 100, an organization which last year named Al-Noor the top Islamic school in the country. Our graduating class, which averages about 15 students, is among the smallest of any of our peer schools. Yet year after year we send our graduates to some of America’s best colleges. This allows us to use the magic of small data sets to make misleading boasts about placing more than a third of our students into T20 colleges. The very first student I helped place got in early to Harvard. Over time, we have sent 4 to Brown, 3 to MIT, and a handful to top-flight colleges such as University of Chicago, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Williams, Wellesley, and so many more. While this list might seem fairly pedestrian by New England private school standards, most of these institutions have a budget, and concomitant resources and facilities, literally 7-10 times per student larger than ours.
So, what is our secret sauce? There are, of course, a number of ingredients. In his admissions classic, On Writing the College Application Essay, Harry Bauld extols the virtue of the NSTK or the neat, small-town kid in college admissions. These students are the unexpected gems whose unusual backgrounds and captivating stories help them stand out from the “leaden shadows of sameness [and enter] the sunlit tropics of acceptance.” NSTK’s are like catnip to an overworked admission officer’s soul. They salivate when reading their applications, knowing how easy it will be to make a compelling argument in their favor to the full committee. As New England’s first full-time Islamic school, we are an NSTK breeding ground. In addition to the standard “secular” classes, our students also take Islamic History, Arabic, Quranic memorization and exegesis, Islamic Sciences, and Arabic calligraphy. We have an innovative dual enrollment program in which our juniors and seniors take a full course load of college-level classes at local state universities and community colleges. This has the dual (pun lightly intended) benefit of getting the students out of the Islamic school bubble and allowing them to design a plan of study that caters to their individual strengths and interests by digging deep in the huge college course catalog.
Over the years, I have recruited an all-star team of alumni admissions mentors who work with a tiny caseload of three mentees. After having received help from older peers during their own admissions journeys, these alumni aim to give back to the school by helping with essay and supplement advice, building activities lists, and providing relatable moral support.
And then there are my recommendation letters. By the time they graduate, I know my students almost as well as their parents. I have taught many in 6th, 9th, and 10th grade English; I have prayed before sunrise and late into the night with many of them and know the ins and outs of their family dynamics. In short, we leverage our status as a tiny school with a family atmosphere and a shared religious ethos to showcase our students in an enticing, natural light. I see the letter I write as the most significant single thing I do for my students over the course of their time at ANA. Every spring, I laminate the letters and present them to the seniors as a parting gift after they have decided where they will be matriculating.
I do not want to take too much credit for our success, however. I think one of the real keys is that our staff, in particular our principal/Islamic studies teacher, inspires in the students a genuine connection to their faith by teaching authentic Islam in an engaging manner that stimulates critical thinking. Al-Noor means divine light, and any success we may have achieved ultimately stems from Him imparting His light to our students.
This is also not to say that our system is flawless. Despite our efforts to change the culture, I think we focus far too much on prestige over fit, which sometimes creates an atmosphere where students who don’t get into name-brand schools feel like failures. I believe we do a far better job with the top half of the class than the bottom and our frequent boast that “100% of our graduates have attended a 4-year college” masks the fact that not all of them actually earn their bachelor’s degrees. We push students towards college who are not always ready and who would likely be better served if we encouraged them towards a more immediately lucrative path such as HVAC repair or plumbing.
But every school has its warts, and, no matter how I restructure my career, helping Al-Noor seniors achieve the best of this word and the next will always be a top priority. I think schools with many more resources than we could benefit by examining us as a case study of how a lean operation has achieved asymmetric results. As more or less a one-man show, there is no one available to award the Golden B.O.O.O.T at my school, but one change I hope I have made is to change the third O in the award from obsequious to outstanding.