BLOIS — It's the last Sunday of August, two days before school officially opens throughout France, but a group of children is already in their new classroom, learning. Located in the central city of Blois, the Les Fruits du s@voir ("Fruits of knowledge") school is clearly not your ordinary French school. This is how this new private institution defines itself: "multilingual, digital, alternative, Muslim."

The boys and girls in the classroom, aged 2 to 6, quickly become familiar with the huge touch screen hanging on the wall and they are already at ease, judging by the way they use the digital pens to cover the interactive canvas with drawings.

It's been three years since Mounya Sbai and her team started to work on the project inaugurated this year. A young math teacher at a public school nearby, she witnessed first-hand the "urgent need" for an educational alternative for a portion of the population that is too often marginalized.

"More and more, the Muslim youth are losing their bearings," Sbai says. She says that they don't know where to learn Islam — except on the Internet with foreign preachers. "It's up to us, who were born in France, to build a place where they can learn about religion without forgetting that they're French."

Starting small

Opening with a secondary school would have been unrealistic, so the school will just have three kindergarten groups. Twenty-one children will attend, more than the 15 expected in the initial project. Each year, a new class will be open, until the oldest pupils reach high school. There's more than enough demand, fed by the long-term efforts of the association that laid the groundwork for the school. By choosing this school, the parents of the first batch of young students were above all focused on academic excellence.

Touch screen at the Les Fruits du s@voir school — Photo: Facebook page

The school teaches in three languages, French, English and Arabic, while showcasing first and foremost its commitment to using computers and digital tools. Fatima Bajjou, a bilingual teacher, will take care of French and Arabic, as well as of an optional religion class, while 21-year-old Shanon Legrand, whose Irish mother taught English, will come once a week.

"That's more than we had in high school," says Anouar, the father of one of the pupils who himself attended a bilingual school and is now reaping the fruits of that advantage.

Hoda, the mother of Fares who goes to the school, says she also wanted a private school mostly "for the languages," and not for the religious orientation. Most of these parents studied in French public schools and generally speak positively of the academic experience. But there's the other motive for their choice: They also believe a school should pass on "morals" to their children — indeed some have older children in Catholic schools.

"I only trust private schools!" says Nahid. Her two other children are in a Catholic school, where "it's going fine," and the two younger ones will now go to the Les Fruits du s@voir school. "We want to instill in them what's best — morals, principles. Here, they'll be taught the same values we teach at home," she says.

During her discussions with the parents, Mounya Sbai reached the same conclusion. "The parents are looking for an education with morals. They also come to us because we use alternative teaching methods based on positive pedagogy," she said. "Only two actually came looking for a religious school."

Teaching staff at the Les Fruits du s@voir school — Photo: Facebook page

Neighborhood doubts

The people behind the project didn't want the school to cater only to the wealthy, so they kept the annual tuition fees to 1,150 euros ($1,270). To make it work, they encouraged volunteers to take part, and chose a refurbished house as the location, relying on the help of more than 50 people in the project: plumbers, an architect, a computer engineer, a mason, etc.

"We've also convinced 150 residents to participate in the funding, for 10 euros a month," says Sophia Akan, the school's head of administration. "We use it to pay the rent."

As with every new school, the Les Fruits du s@voir school has received no aid from the state. Any school needs at least five years of activity before it can ask for subsidies via a state partnership. So far, the school's dealings with the public administration has gone smoothly but the same can't be said about the search for a location. "People didn't want us anywhere," recalls Mounya Sbai. "Sites that were available suddenly weren't when we explained our project. It took us two years to find this place."

Within three years, the two-story house will be too small and the school will need to move elsewhere. Until then, the project leaders are hoping to buy their own building.

During the campaign for the 2014 municipal elections, rumor had it that a Koranic school was about to open. Sophia Akan and Mounya Sbai are laughing about the whole thing. "At first, we thought we wouldn't write ‘Muslim' in the school's description," Sbai explains. "People accused us of trying to hide it, so we added it back in."

But their ambitions for the future make their ultimate intentions clear: "Eventually," says Sbai, "we hope to also have non-Muslim students."