The Tarek Ibn Ziyad Academy in Inver Grove Heights may be the most controversial school in the entire state of Minnesota, but the school also has some of the best test scores in the country for children living in poverty.
TIZA sits at the site of the old Inver Grove Elementary. At recess girls in Muslim headscarves and robes play boys at basketball.
The school has been criticized by conservatives and sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for promoting Islam and violating the constitutions of both Minnesota and the United States. The school was also fined last year for having unlicensed teachers in the classroom.
The federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU accuses the school of violating the U.S. Constitution's required separation of church and state by promoting the Muslim religion and requiring students to pray. As a public charter school, it receives more than $3 million in state tax money each year.
The lawsuit also charges that the school endorses and prefers Muslim clothing rules. Administrator Wendy Swenson-Choi denied this, saying the Muslim head scarves and long robes are not part of the uniform. She also denied that the school forces students to pray.
"The teacher will just make sure there are 3 to 5 minutes during the day when those that want to pray," Swensen-Choi said.
Seventh-grader Omar Abu-Atieh told WCCO-TV that prayer is voluntary.
"It's a choice. Whoever wants to pray, they go pray," he said.
One thing that hasn't gotten a lot of publicity is the schools remarkable test scores. Eighty percent of the schools' students speak English as a second language and 85 percent qualify for free and reduced lunches, yet the school consistently ranks high in math and reading test scores.
In 2009, nearly 80 percent of TIZA students were proficient in state math tests and 70 percent were proficient in reading.
The scores were so good, the state received a complaint that TIZA was cheating. The Minnesota Department of Education last year spent $30,000 in taxpayer money investigating the academy and statewide test accuracy. The state ultimately found the school scores were legitimate.
"We have been through a very rigorous investigation and of course they didn't find anything," Swenson-Choi said.
TIZA even received a $375,000 federal grant to allow other schools teachers to come in and see what their school is doing right.
"If I had to boil it down to one thing, we stay focused on what the students need to learn and be able to do to grow," Swenson-Choi said.
The school is also strict. Children must pay attention in class and walk in single file in the halls. Children who are struggling get one-on-one. Individual goals are set for each child.
"I grew 12 points, and in reading I grew 20 points," said Omar.
TIZA is also denying the state's claim that it has unlicensed teachers in the classroom. The school is appealing the $139,000 fine levied by the Minnesota Department of Education to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
TIZA has a waiting list of 1,200 and many children ride the bus more than an hour to get to the school.
The ACLU lawsuit guarantees continued controversy, but the school's academic success among low income children of color also guarantees the kind of continued scrutiny most schools would love to have.