A first-generation immigrant from Ethiopia, Inver Grove Heights resident Abdu Tuku is understandably proud of his children's accomplishments.
His two daughters, 8-year-old Yasmin and her younger sister, Eman, 6, were ranked this year among the top students in the nation, according to the results of academic tests conducted by theNorthwest Evaluation Association, a Portland, Or.-based nonprofit.
But Tuku worries their hard-won success could vanish if the school they attend, Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, closes this summer.
"My older daughter has four trophies. Every year, she is one of the top students," Tuku said. "America is the land of opportunity … they have had the best opportunity, and losing it again would be so sad."
TiZA, a charter school with locations in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine, is no stranger to controversy; two years ago the American Civil Liberties Union sued the school, the Minnesota Department of Education and TiZA's authorizer, Islamic Relief USA. The ACLU alleged that academy violated state law, the Minnesota constitution and the Constitution of the United States by promoting Islam on campus. That case heads to trial at the beginning of November.
But for the moment, the school has a much more urgent concern.
A state law, amended in 2009, prohibits charter schools from having out-of-state sponsors, and TiZA's current authorizer, Islamic Relief, is based in Virginia. Earlier this month, the Minnesota Department of Education denied an application from Minneapolis-based Novation Education Opportunities to become the school's authorizer. If the academy can't find a new, state-approved sponsor by June 30, it may be forced to close.
Novation has reviewed and reissued its application to become the school's sponsor, TiZA director Asad Zaman said. In the meantime, however, the school has also filed a last-ditch constitutional challenge in federal court to the charter school law to stave off closure.
In its complaint, TiZA claims the Minnesota law preventing charter schools from having an out-of-state authorizer unfairly targets the school, Zaman and TiZA's legal counsel, Shamus O'Meara said. Nor has the state given the school a 60-day notice of closure, as it is required to do, O'Meara added. Finally, TiZA alleges the amended state law unconstitutional violates its contract with its current authorizer, Islamic Relief, because the law would terminate the contract one year before its end date of June 2012.
For those reasons, TiZA has asked the court to issue a restraining order to protect its current contract with Islamic Relief until the contract runs out or the school finds a new sponsor, according to the complaint.
At stake are the futures of roughly 540 students who attend the school, Zaman said.
"My students need this program, my students have been to other publicly offered programs without success, and this program represents the difference between success and failure for them," Zaman said.
More than 80 percent of the students at TiZA's two campuses come from low-income families. Roughly 72 percent of the school's students passed the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment reading exam in 2010, while just over 94 percent passed the math exam. Statewide, roughly 66 percent of students tested proficient on the math exam in 2010, while 72 percent were proficient on the reading exams.
"I still believe, someone, somebody will realize the situation and start blocking it," said Tuku, who bought a house in Inver Grove Heights so his family could live close to TiZA. "We've always believed that education is the key for anybody. We want our kids to continue this school."