In a strip mall in northwestern Toronto, behind a blank storefront, old wooden desks are lined up in rows of three. At 3 p.m., children pour into the parking lot carrying books, while a little girl and boy stay behind at their desks, giggling and copying vocabulary from a blackboard while they wait to be picked up.

The school opened in September and has 30 students. Their six teachers lead Somalian and Arabic language lessons on top of the regular curriculum, plus Islamic studies.

They’re poorly paid, as tuition is only $250 monthly per student. But there’s a waiting list of more than 200 and the teachers have been promised that the school will balloon, along with their salaries, as soon as its directors can find a bigger space.

Called Rauf Academy, it is one of a handful of similar brand-new schools in the Toronto area, a legacy of parental anger over Ontario’s new sex-ed lessons that promises to outlive this year’s protests, such as a day of mass absences planned for Thursday.

“We heard the rumblings that a lot of parents are going to remove the kids, so we said, well, that might give us the kick-start, the momentum we need,” said Rauf Academy’s director, Yacoob Bayat.

His staff count two other homegrown schools nearby in Etobicoke, and another school director says two more opened their doors in Mississauga a month ago.

The sex-ed curriculum took effect in September, although its lessons won’t be taught in Toronto schools until later this year. Mr. Bayat said the province made another mistake by not reaching out to protesting parents, leaving them feeling there would be no meaningful religious accommodation.

Islamic schools have long gotten their starts in Toronto with bare-bones operations like this one. But Mr. Bayat and other school leaders say their ultimate goal is to create an alternative for Muslim families, a community-funded system of free education. So far 11 schools are working together as an informal board.

“As crazy as it sounds, maybe this was a good thing. Maybe this is what the community needed to galvanize and to do something,” said Mr. Bayat, a car mechanic originally from South Africa. “Communities in general, they know we’ve got a problem, but unless somebody takes the lead, nobody really does anything.”

Others in Toronto’s Muslim community say they don’t want parents to lose sight of the benefits of regular public education.

“The level of quality is really high,” said Rabea Murtaza, a mother and college teacher who is a member of a two groups supporting the new curriculum. “And if you walk away, you lose the opportunity to make any difference at all.”

It won’t be clear until next fall, when private-school enrolment is tallied, whether there’s been a noticeable boom in private schools.

The province does, however, keep more recent numbers on “notices of intention to open a private school,” which have jumped in the past two years. In 2013-14, there were 94; then 155 in 2014-15. For this school year, there have been 148.

“We respect that many parents choose to home-school their children or enroll them in private schools,” said a statement from the Ministry of Education.

The sex-ed curriculum, last updated in 1998, is a question of student safety, said the statement, adding that parents who need concerns addressed should talk to their child’s teacher or principal.

Mr. Bayat said that offer has been too weak for the parents he knows. He settled in north Etobicoke 30 years ago and became close with the Somali community, recently working with a local charity. He wanted to open a school built around the needs of newly immigrated Somali families before the protests over sex-ed began last spring, he said.

However, he also sympathized with parents’ worries, particularly about how the curriculum presents homosexuality as acceptable.

“I think that is something that’s becoming more mainstream throughout the world, I know,” he said. “We’re not going to change that. We just don’t want it forced on our kids as a subject.”

Rauf Academy is a non-profit operation, Mr. Bayat said, and it will operate under the auspices of the charity he had worked for, which is registered federally and listed last year’s revenues and expenditures as $7,800 each.

So far the school has free rent, thanks to friends who lent the storefront. Mr. Bayat is negotiating with a landlord for a $4,000-monthly space that would allow separate classes.

The ministry said an inspector visited the school on Sept. 21 to validate it, which means checking that basic rules are followed such as having a principal and schoolwide assessment and attendance policies. Private schools in Ontario do not need to follow provincial curriculums and are not inspected in more depth unless they want to offer Ontario Secondary School Diploma credits.

“You can teach from your mind or you can teach from books,” said Mr. Bayat. “They don’t really have any rules, but they just want to know.”

Some of the schools that Mr. Bayat works with take the minimalist approach.

“We take out the extravagances and we take out the unnecessary and we keep it to the basics, and that allows us to remove a lot of extra costs,” said Noor-ud-Din Ghauri, the principal of Ummati Elementary School in Oshawa, which opened in 2006 with an Islamic focus and has almost 80 students.

The school’s tuition is a sliding scale from $50 to $150 monthly.

“Having an [Ontario College of Teachers] qualified teacher is, to us, an extravagance,” he said. “Developing or setting a certain standard when it comes to furniture, setting a certain standard when it comes to cosmetics of the classroom, setting a certain standard with regards to selection of course material,” he listed.

“It’s like saying you’ll only be smart if you use an $8 pencil instead of a 50-cent pencil.”

Parents complained bitterly on a “rate my school” website about one of the older schools in the network in Whitby, saying it was held in a repurposed garage and teachers sometimes didn’t show up.

One school did get its start in a garage, said Mr. Ghauri, but it moved to a better location when it grew. “You’ll never be able to please everybody,” he said.

The 11 schools can share furniture and materials, and Rauf Academy’s teachers, who are OCT-certified, can also attend Ummati training, said Mr. Bayat. To work toward his “wild dream” of free tuition, he’s planning a fundraiser with $10 tickets and food donated by local restaurants.

Mr. Bayat has high hopes for his school, whose motto is “Give us your child, and we’ll give you back an ambassador.”

Mr. Bayat’s original mission hasn’t changed, he said: to teach his students to thrive in Canada. He sees no contradiction in the fact that their parents have already chosen to opt out of mainstream schooling. They feel rejected by the schools, he said, and he doesn’t blame them.

“We are not asking anybody else to follow our beliefs, but we would like to follow our beliefs and to not let anybody else tell our kids otherwise,” he said. “That freedom of belief is something that I think is pretty Canadian.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Sep. 30, 2015 10:17PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Oct. 01, 2015 7:05AM EDT