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Ahmed Rahat. Photo by Liz Wagner

Ahmed Rahat explains the day he received his test scores
Ahmed Rahat explains the day he received his test scores

It’s all thanks to Muhammad Rashid

Muhammad Rashid’s brown eyes lit up when someone mentioned the topic of education during a recent neighborhood basketball practice at the St. Joan of Arc Catholic School gym in Jackson Heights. He lowered his voice, spoke slowly and gesticulated emphatically as he explained his philosophy that every child can excel if pushed.

“Every kid is brilliant,” he said. “You just have to remind them they can do it.”

He was referring to the junior-high-school students shooting hoops on the court. He knows many of them through his work in his community. The words erupted like fireworks from his body and through the top of his balding head, as if he has just unearthed the secret to success.

To say Rashid has a passion for education is an understatement. It is his obsession. He’s made it his mission to mentor students. In doing so, the 55-year-old Bangladeshi immigrant has made himself a standout in Jackson Heights.

When his idea for a telemedicine company failed in the United States in 2005, he decided to give it up completely and devote his time preparing eighth-grade students for New York City’s Specialized High School Exam. The test determines admission into the city’s eight elite public high schools, such as Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, The Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School. He tutored 15 students from his neighborhood last year, for free. His wife’s physician salary supports the family, so Rashid figured he didn’t have to charge. Each of his mentees secured spots at the city’s top institutions.

Rashid’s success rate is impressive considering 80 percent of students don’t pass the exam. More than 27,000 New York City eighth- and ninth-graders took the test last year, and only 5,000 were granted admission, the Department of Education reported.

The test is “difficult to pass” unless students “have been trained,” according to Sharon Terry, the principal of I.S. 230 in Jackson Heights. Her teachers provide test overview classes in September, but they are not comprehensive enough to be very effective, she said.

Dolores Beckham, principal of neighboring I.S. 145, is so enthused by Rashid’s results, she arranged a meeting with him to discuss why he was so successful.

“He came in two weeks before the test results came back and said, ‘I guarantee all my students made it,’ and they did,” Beckham said.

Rashid’s desire to push his students is colored by his past. He witnessed the horrors of the Bangladesh Liberation war and lived through periods of oppression at the hands of the military in West Pakistan. He has also peddled his telemedicine products in more than 20 developing countries and has witnessed how limited educational opportunities are in most places.

For Rashid and his family, America represents opportunity and fulfillment. His wife is a successful doctor at Interfaith Hospital in Brooklyn. His daughter is a freshman at Stuyvesant High School, and his son is headed there in the fall. Ultimately, he has his eyes on Harvard University for his children. He is certain degrees from American universities will launch them further than where he even landed.

“I owe to this country to (produce) good leaders,” he said. “I owe to this country to have good kids. Each of us owes. This country has given us so much.”

Nobody stops you here

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Muhammad Rashid. Photo by Liz Wagner

Rashid Audio 1
Muhammad Rashid’s views on life in America

Rashid sought to fill his debt of gratitude to the United States by grooming students into smart future leaders. Rashid controlled what his students learned and compiled exam study-guides himself.

He scoured public libraries for vocabulary and English textbooks. He photocopied thousands of pages of geometry, probability, algebra and statistics problems — the type of math covered on the test but not taught in New York City public middle schools. He organized teaching sessions with professional instructors from Kaplan — the renowned and pricey test-preparation company — and proctored dozens of timed practice tests.

Rashid ran the whole operation like a boot camp.

He started in February and met with the students for two hours on one school night and up to seven hours on Saturday or Sunday. From the summer on, he demanded three-hour sessions five days a week.

“It was really a lot of studying,” said Bronx Science-bound eighth-grader Ahmed Rahat. “In the first weeks I was going to Mr. Rashid, we left at like 12 or 1 in the morning.”

With no formal classroom, Rashid conducted lessons from his home, at a park or in the St. Joan of Arc gym during Youth Council basketball practice.

Sometimes parents of his students would offer up space in their businesses. One parent allowed Rashid to utilize the waiting room of an outpatient clinic.

Rashid also required his students to participate in extra-curricular activities. Rashid would cart them off to swim and basketball practices, tae kwon do lessons, drawing classes at the Jackson Heights Art Club, music rehearsals, and seminars at the Ethical Humanist Society in Queens. He encouraged them to learn different languages such as Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew, as well.

Some weeks in the summer, he would hold all-day clinics. He’d watch the children run a few miles in the morning, oversee their study sessions during the day and accompany them to enrichment activities at night. He’d separate the activities with lunch and dinner, which he provided.

Three days before the November test, Rashid visited the children in their homes and didn’t leave until each persuaded him they were prepared.

“I’d go to them and they would have to say to me, ‘I am ready,’ ” he recalled with a toothy smile. “And they all said, ‘Uncle Rashid, I am ready to win.’ ”

Ahmed Rahat’s father is still touched by Rashid’s generosity.

“We are grateful to him, and he never charged anything,” said Jamal Ahmed. “We tried to give him something. … (He said,) ‘If you want to pay something you can take your kids to other places. I am not working for the money. I just want to see our kids … be bright physically, mentally and educationally. All the things they have to get to make their lives in the top level.’ ”

Rahat wouldn’t have gotten into a top school without Rashid’s help. He isn’t taking any honors classes, and his teachers did not cover the most of the math material contained in the exam. The first time he took a practice test he scored 32 percent.

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Jamal Ahmed. Photo by Liz Wagner

Rahat said Rashid took his parents under his wing when they moved to Queens and educated them about the workings of the New York City school system. Rahat’s family emigrated from Bangladesh in 2000 after waiting for years to win the country’s immigration lottery, which allows just 3,000 people out of the region annually. They moved to give Rahat and his younger brother a better education.

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Ahmed’s father on embracing opportunity

Many of Rashid’s students are from Bangladesh, but he also teaches students who are Latino, Chinese, Korean, Tibetan and white.

“Everybody, whatever one wants to become can become,” he said recently at his former students’ basketball practice. “Irrespective of color, class, beliefs, religion, nobody stops you. … No one is going to stop you from reaching for the sky.”

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Rashid stands next to his former students as they practice basketball in Jackson Heights. Photo by Liz Wagner


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Rashid explains what his students mean to him

“I love each kid like my sons, no difference. I want them to succeed.”

People who know Rashid — and there are many of them — are quick to point out his public service extends beyond the educational realm.

“He’s totally dedicated to the community,” said Robert May, coordinator of the Jackson Heights Youth Council’s basketball program. “He’s everywhere.”

May describes Rashid as one of those rare individuals who acts as a connector and brings together people whose paths would never otherwise cross.

Three mothers from Colombia, Pakistan and Ireland chatted near the cafeteria tables in the gym where their kids were dribbling basketballs and practicing layups — friends now because of their children’s involvement in Rashid’s tutoring program. One of them gushed, “I love Mr. Rashid,” when she noticed him wave enthusiastically to the kids as they sunk three-pointers.

Rashid hates the accolades and is reluctant to talk about the motivation behind his volunteerism. He’d rather focus on his next batch of mentees and his new goals for them.

He wants to help one of his future students achieve a perfect score on the Specialized High School Exam, which has never been accomplished anywhere in New York City. He also plans to train a future spelling bee champion and coach two swimmers from his neighborhood to the Olympics.

“If one guy can make it from Jackson Heights, can’t we all make it?” Rashid asked, as if he already knew the answer.