Six-year-old Saba Maruf raises her hand, desperate for her teacher's attention.
"It says, 'Chicago,' " said the kindergartner, reading a sign in a picture.
It's the last day of summer school at the Inver Grove Heights public charter Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy. Saba is analyzing a picture for teacher Crystal Robideau.
Outside the classroom, bathrooms are being renovated.
The academy — which is at the center of a controversial debate over religion in public schools — is preparing for another school year of court battles and scrutiny. Yet amid the accusations, its students continue to outperform their peers.
Known as TiZA, the academy consistently meets state academic benchmarks — even though most of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and speak English as a second language. Educators have taken note, even awarding the school a federal grant to share its teaching methods with other schools.
But claims that the school is violating federal law always hover overhead.
"It's taking a toll," said executive director Asad Zaman. "Students — and teachers who pour their hearts out to teach these students — are not supposed to be dealing with continued negativity. They're supposed to be focused on teaching these students."
TiZA faces a federal lawsuit accusing the school of violating the First Amendment and the U.S. Constitution by promoting Islam. It also questions the school's high test scores.
attention and the lawsuit have prompted the Minnesota Department of Education to investigate the school's test scores and teacher licenses, as well as conduct audits. The investigation resulted in a $140,000 fine for licensure violations.
This week, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld that decision.
But the state found no discrepancies in how the school achieved its test scores.
Education Department spokesman Bill Walsh said the state would not comment on legal issues surrounding TiZA because of ongoing court cases. In addition to the academy, Education Commissioner Alice Seagren is named in the federal suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. The department also continues to defend itself in a district court lawsuit, in which TiZA claims the state withheld public information.
Khalid Elmasry, whose daughter used to attend TiZA, is a witness in the federal suit. TiZA leaders "refer to the school as a Muslim school and a school for Muslims," he said.
Zaman suspects racism is behind the accusations.
"It may have to do with the ethnic or religious background of the students," he said.
"The state of Minnesota is much better than this," Zaman said, noting that the state has welcomed other immigrant groups in the past. "For some people, there's no room for this last round of newcomers."
160 STUDENTS TO START
Zaman and two other educators founded TiZA seven years ago with about 160 students at the Inver Grove Heights campus. In 2007, a second location opened in Blaine.
Before going into education in 2003, Zaman worked as an accountant and at Thomson West, now Thomson Reuters, in software and electronic data systems.
Zaman left the industry to help immigrant students, he said. The school's founders were "concerned about immigrant students not succeeding in the education system."
But the process of starting a charter school was difficult, he added. "We did not know many of the rules and regulations on how the system worked."
One reason TiZA students succeed academically is its data-driven curriculum, Zaman said. Teachers prepare students' work based on the concepts and skills they need to learn, practice and master. Also, teachers stress five-step methodologies — which students memorize with their hands — to analyze reading and solve math problems.
The K-8 school last year attracted 519 students, of which:
- Minorities made up 92 percent, and at least 50 percent were of Somali descent.
- Seventy-six percent had limited English proficiency, speaking 10 different languages.
- Nearly 80 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.
While most schools with such a large immigrant population struggle, TiZA students last school year again far surpassed the state's average for student proficiency on state-required reading and math tests, according to the education department.
The TiZA campus in Inver Grove Heights has met the state's adequate yearly progress benchmarks for the past five years, according to the education department.
The Blaine campus has met the standard every year since it opened.
TiZA's academic successes prompted the state to award the school a Federal Charter Schools Program Dissemination Grant in March 2009. Although schools have applied, the last time the state awarded the grant was five years ago, Walsh said.
TiZA has partnered with five other schools for the $375,000, two-year grant, sharing its teaching methods in hopes of helping those schools increase their own state test scores.
"We learned quite a few things from them," said Farhan Hussein, director of one of those partner schools, Lighthouse Academy of Nations in Minneapolis.
After nearly a year of trainings with TiZA — as well as other schools — Lighthouse students' state standardized test scores rose last year.
In reading, 28 percent of 10th graders met state benchmarks. In math, 23 percent of 11th graders scored proficiently, the education department reported. The year before, none of the students at Lighthouse was proficient in reading and math.
Despite TiZA's academic success, the school has its detractors.
In the ACLU lawsuit, the group questions the school's high standardized test scores — which in some grades showed 100 percent of students scored proficiently.
The state investigated those claims and found no discrepancies in TiZA's test scores.
The January 2009 suit also alleges that the public school violates the First Amendment and the Constitution by sharing space with the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, promoting prayer in school and endorsing Muslim clothing rules and dietary practices.
The suit also names the academy's sponsor, Islamic Relief USA.
Elmasry, a former board member of the Muslim American Society, who is testifying in the lawsuit, said he saw TiZA violate state open-meeting laws. And the school and its leaders had questionable connections with Islamic groups.
In a recent interview, Zaman denied that TiZA promotes religion. "At all points, these are student-initiated and -led (prayers). I neither support nor condemn that practice."
So far, the school has spent more than $250,000 — out of its $6 million annual budget — on legal fees, Asad said. But unlike many schools, TiZA saw a budget surplus last year.
The ACLU lawsuit is in the process of beginning mediation, said attorney Teresa Nelson, who represents the organization.
Nathaniel Khaliq, president of the St. Paul NAACP, said religion is the real reason the state Education Department, the ACLU, and critics have a spotlight on TiZA. And though the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights found Minnesota's education department has not racially discriminated against TiZA, Khaliq is appealing the decision.
Prayer in Minnesota schools, it turns out, is not that unusual.
At Central High School in St. Paul — where 32 percent of students are African-American — students can request a room for prayer, said Principal Mary Mackbee. On Fridays, students may leave early for a congregational prayer.
In fact, state law requires schools to make "reasonable efforts" to accommodate students who wish to be excused from a curricular activity for a religious observance.
It's more commonplace for Minnesota schools to accommodate student's religious requests partly because of the growing number of Muslim immigrants, educators say.
In 2009, more than half of immigrants new to Minnesota were African, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Of the 9,579 African immigrants, 43 percent were of Somali descent — a culture that mostly practices the Islamic religion.
TiZA works because teachers construct their lessons according to their students' academic needs, Zaman said.
Unlike other schools, TiZA emphasizes evaluating its students' test results from the Northwest Evaluation Association assessments, an exam used by districts statewide to help determine students' academic abilities and progress. But Zaman said that critics make the mistake of thinking TiZA tailors its lessons to state tests.
"People think we teach to the test," he said. "We teach to the standard."
Teachers determine what skills and concepts to teach each student depending on their Northwest Evaluation test scores, Zaman said. But he admits, data-driven curriculum can be timeconsuming and isn't for all schools.
"I've seen people waste time on this," he said.
But for TiZA, it works.
Parent Abuad Rahi said high test scores and the staff's religious understanding are why he chose TiZA for his two daughters, who will attend third and first grade this fall.
Rahi, 40, who emigrated 20 years ago from Pakistan, said the school has a good balance between extracurricular activities and education. Also, he likes the staff's diverse backgrounds.
"I personally like to have my daughters grow up in an environment where they understand American culture with a good understanding of my own culture," Rahi said. "The school understands religious accommodations. That's a very positive aspect."