The Islamic School of Seattle, one of the first such programs in the nation, has closed its doors after 32 years in the Central District. The community is invited to celebrate the school's history at a potluck Tuesday.

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Hundreds of children’s books spill over the rim of boxes. Others are scattered on the floor next to hardcover dictionaries and histories.

As Ann El-Moslimany leans on her cane and scans the library at the Islamic School of Seattle (ISS), she sees thousands of other books still sitting on shelves, where she wishes they could stay.

It’s difficult for El-Moslimany, 74, to accept that the Islamic school she helped start in the Central Area 32 years ago — one of the nation’s first — has closed.

Soon after the school opened in 1980, more than 120 students attended. But that was the peak, and by this last school year, enrollment had dwindled to about 20. Final classes were June 12.

It’s difficult to identify a singular cause for the closure.

The school, which took a middle ground between offering a purely religious education and functioning as an academic preparatory academy, became less popular as Seattle’s Muslim community diversified and other Islamic schools started in the region.

And as some Muslim families moved out of the Central District, those who remained often could not afford the tuition without scholarships from the school. The school also struggled in recent years to find a principal who supported its approach and could also balance an unstable budget.

Despite those challenges, many students remember the school fondly.

The school’s governing board has invited recent and former students, their families and community supporters to a potluck at the school on Tuesday to celebrate its history.

Organizers have been gathering stories and comments from former students in preparation.

One person wrote, “The ISS has been a beautiful incubator of what an Islamic School in America should look like. … I hope one day someone will carry this torch, as it is the real future of Islam in America, and how Islam can contribute, and not just be ‘tolerated.’ “

At the potluck, people will be encouraged to mingle and share stories. A string will stretch across the room so guests can hang photos to create a timeline.

The school has some images on hand but has invited guests to bring their own, hoping the photos together will reflect the hands-on, global education its students received.

The pictures might show students walking through the Minidoka concentration camp with members of Seattle’s Japanese community, doing environmental research at the Olympic Park Institute, or performing in an evening concert in the gym during the holy month of Ramadan.

Former student Atieh Al-Matti attended in the early 1990s and is now a sales consultant for an IT and security company in Jordan. He remembered the school as “a miniature United Nations,” noting that its families came from many nations, each with its own language and customs.

El-Moslimany, a board member, said the first students were primarily from Saudi Arabia and that over the years they were joined by American Muslims and Muslim students from Afghanistan, Gambia and Algeria.

In recent years, mainly Somali children filled the classrooms. Together, they shared their heritages as they united in their faith, she said. Teachers reinforced their religious identities through lessons that united scriptures with science, history and math.

The school’s leaders and students also regularly joined or hosted interfaith events. El-Moslimany said that became particularly important after 9/11, when the school worked to combat misperceptions about Islamic beliefs and a sudden fear of Muslims across the nation.

“We worked very hard in making sure they (students) weren’t isolated as Muslims but actively engaged with other religions and other groups of people,” El-Moslimany said. For the school, that also meant discussing the history of many religions and ethnicities and not segregating classrooms by gender, as is the norm in some Muslim nations.

Former student Zarbakhtah Kakar, a medical assistant who now lives in Lynnwood, was 8 when she and her family left Afghanistan. When she enrolled at ISS in 1985, she was afraid, remembering stories about Afghan schools that didn’t allow girls and where children were beaten for not doing homework.

“Here, everything was taught through love,” Kakar said. “If you made a mistake it’s OK: ‘How can we help you get back up?’ It was the root of my Islamic education. Without that, I feel like I would’ve lost my roots.”

Like many former students, she sent her own daughter to the school. Yet even as multiple generations of some families filled the classrooms, it wasn’t enough to keep the school going.

Some parents wanted the school to focus almost exclusively on religious teachings while others disliked its Montessori model and wanted classes to be structured more like those of a rigorous preparatory academy.

Some parents didn’t like that some teachers and principals were not Muslim, or wanted the school to limit enrollment to people of one national heritage.

.El-Moslimany guesses that demographics played a big part.

Seattle’s Muslims fall into multiple income brackets, but those most able to afford the school’s tuition live outside the Central District, primarily on the Eastside, where they are closer to competing Islamic programs.

“We’re kind of caught between these two groups,” El-Moslimany said. With the school’s closure, the board must decide whether and how to revive its mission in a new form, and what to do with the building and the materials that still fill the classrooms.

El-Moslimany sorts through books and the school’s unique lesson plans, identifying ones she thinks should be stored. No one is sure if that will happen, but many speak about the uncertainty with optimism.

“It may be an end of the school, but it’s just a beginning of where we’re going with our vision and our mission,” El-Moslimany said.

Jayme Fraser: 206-464-2201 or jfraser@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @jaymekfraser