When I see a Charter School in a headline or hear it in a news tease, I pay close attention. My fascination with Charter Schools dates back to the investigations I did at KSTP-TV. After receiving a tip from a teacher, I investigated Charter Schools and found a high number of unlicensed teachers and teachers teaching outside of their licensed areas. Thankfully, the stories hit a nerve with parents, teachers and law makers. Many of the Charter School loop holes have since been changed.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not a Charter School hater. I've toured several successful Charter Schools that prove these types of schools can work and can be a huge asset for students.
Tarek Ibn Ziyad Academy or TiZA, a charter with locations in Blaine and Inver Grove Heights, has an enrollment of over 500 students and has been at the center of controversy for years. The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the school accusing it of promoting Islam and the court battle is set to rage this summer.
According to the TiZa website, "Tarek Ibn Ziyad Academy seeks to provide students with a learning environment that recognizes and appreciates the traditions, histories, civilizations and accomplishments of Africa, Asia and the Middle East." Since I haven't spent time in a TiZA classroom, I don't have enough information to intelligently debate if TiZA is teaching or promoting Islam. However, I am a huge fan of facts, research and Google. When I came across the word Ummayad from this statement on the Tiza website, "As an inspiration to our students, we have named our school after Tarek Ibn Ziyad, the Ummayad administrator of medieval Spain. Thirteen hundred years ago, serving in the multifaceted roles of activist, leader, explorer, teacher, administrator and peacemaker, he inspired his fellow citizens to the same striving for human greatness that we hope to instill in our students today" I Googled it. Turns out the word spelled "Ummayad" on the TiZA website is actually spelled "Umayyad". It refers to the first Muslim dynasty in 661-750. Tarek Ibn Ziyad was the general of the military movement at the time. Who knew?
OK enough on that… back to facts. Based on information from the MN Department of Education, students who attend the school's Inver Grove Heights location are primarily African American and come from non-English speaking homes. In fact, 88% of the students have limited English proficiency. However, these students score better on state standardized testing than the typical Minnesota student. Interesting. I applaud the kids for doing so well on the state testing. Is it possible that TiZA administrators know that the school is under fire and that keeping test scores high will limit actions the MN Department of Education can take? According to the TiZA website, "Our learning program and instructional methods differs significantly from those found in typical public schools, in that our teachers regularly monitors students and analyze the results of standardized tests in order to develop an indepth (sic) and comprehensive picture of students' strengths and weaknesses."
So what should a school with decent test scores do in the middle of an ACLU and media firestorm? Roll out the red carpet for the media. If TiZA would allow a few journalists to spend a week in the school observing curriculum and practices, I think a lot of the controversy would be cleared up? It wouldn't change the lawsuit, but it would remove the veil of mystery that seems to surround the school and the curriculum. Since the school is funded by Minnesota tax payers, it seems people should have a right to know what kind of education they are paying for. Obviously this can't be done in a way that would interrupt education or put the safety and security of students at risk. There are creative ways to use the media to shine a light on what is happening at TiZA. If the teaching is within line with federal laws and state guidelines, then let's see it. If it isn't, we have a right to know it and the practices should change. The way it stands now, people have views of the school based on bloggers, biases and Bill O'Reilly. If there has ever been a time to take the case of TiZA to the public, it is now.
TiZA is in trouble with its out-of-state sponsor. New laws mean a MN Charter School must have a MN Sponsor. TiZA's sponsor is Virginia based Islamic Relief. If TiZA can't find a MN Sponsor, it may have to close the doors. This school isn't going down without a fight – maybe naming the school after military general was fitting after all?