OBK principal wins provincial leadership award

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Principal Raiha Idrees works at her desk at Calgary Islamic School Omar Bin Al-Khattab campus in Calgary.

The principal of Calgary Islamic School Omar Bin Al-Khattab campus will receive a provincial award in recognition of outstanding leadership.

Raiha Idrees, who is in her second year as principal of OBK campus, will be in Edmonton Friday evening for a celebration event. She is one of just 20 school leaders from across the province receiving the Distinguished Leadership Award this year from the Council for School Leadership of the Alberta Teachers' Association.

The award is based on evidence of leadership directly related to Principal Quality Practice Competencies, including relationship building, instructional leadership and understanding and responding to the larger societal context.

Idrees says the award came as a shock. She began receiving congratulatory emails without knowing she’d been nominated for, let alone won, the prestigious award.

It took a search through her email spam folder to find the details. This shy educator tried encouraging colleagues to keep her award a secret, but was convinced to share the news as a way of celebrating the entire school team.

“I felt a very high sense of gratitude,” she says. “It’s good to be validated. You know you’re doing things and you see positive changes, but this validates what we have done.”

Dr. Abdullah Omar, the executive director of Islamic schools with the Muslim Community Foundation of Calgary, nominated Idrees for the award to honour her unique abilities as a strong manager, highly organized individual and engaging teacher.

“She is also a very humble person,” he says.

Omar knew Idrees from her time as a principal in Edmonton. In his role with the MCFC, Palliser’s partner society in the Calgary Islamic Schools, Omar says he’s watched Idrees build a strong school community by encouraging all teachers to be leaders in their own way, and by encouraging strong participation by parents through school council.

The faith-based school serves a culturally diverse community, and Idrees has deftly navigated the politics of that diversity, he says.

“It keeps the school as a positive island,” in the larger Muslim community of Calgary, Omar says. “Students are learning, contributing, volunteering and doing very well.

“She captivates the students’ attention and their imagination. She’s very kind, very respectful.”

He credits Idrees for creating a model of teamwork between academic teachers and instructors of Arabic and Islamic studies that is the envy of Islamic schools, breaking down walls between teachers and instructors so all are collaborating, planning and working as a team.

This year, Idrees arranged for instructors to participate in the Palliser-led, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People training. The majority of the staff now have this leadership training, which is contributing to a welcoming and positive school culture.

“OBK, to me, is a school that has all the right ingredients,” Idrees says. “We have a very co-operative staff. They welcome new people. We have a co-operative school council. They put in so much effort and dedication. We all want OBK to succeed.”

Some of the work she’s led has been to embed faith in all aspects of the school, and to give students opportunities to internalize what they learn about the Islamic faith so it can become a point of pride as part of their identity as Canadians.

The school has encouraged students to find Muslim role models, whether Olympic athletes or local leaders.

“Students can relate to them,” she says. “You see you can be a good Muslim and a good Canadian. Part of being Canadian is accepting diversity.”

The school encourages students to embrace volunteerism and giving, not just by way of money, but through service to others.

She said in her first year as principal, some families worried that the alternative program within Palliser would lose its Islamic identity. Over time, families have come to appreciate  there is no threat to that identity, and OBK students are getting positive exposure to Palliser students from other faiths and backgrounds.

“To me, ABCs can be learned anywhere, but students have to have that character development,” she says.

She credits her staff for not only embracing collaboration on academic matters through weekly grade team meetings, but for using weekly staff meetings for sharing and exploring topics of faith.

Idrees has nearly 20 years of experience in education, as a teacher, principal and consultant. She completed her undergraduate degree from City University of New York with a dual program in Elementary and Special Education. She earned a Master’s Degree from Columbia University, Teacher’s College in Education Administration. She completed a second Master’s Degree from London School of Economics and Political Science in Social Policy and Planning.

Omar Bin Al-Khattab campus serves about 460 students from kindergarten through Grade 9. It offers a Tafeeth program for junior high students who are memorizing the Qur’an.