The test scores were high. And until the specter of expensive legal bills landed the school in bankruptcy this summer, the finances were healthy.
Yet, on July 1, Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy - the 540-student charter school with campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine - was no longer. Left without the state-backed overseer it needed to keep going, the school closed after a final flurry of lawsuits and recriminations.
TiZA's board debated fighting on but dissolved the school this month.
Why didn't the academy make it?
A search for a clear-cut answer in documents and interviews with education leaders, attorneys and TiZA stakeholders turns up instead a tangle of factors that chipped away at the school's chances:
- Intense scrutiny that put the school on the defensive.
- An American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that swelled beyond anyone's wildest guess, and the unraveling of the school's relationship with its overseer.
- And a final combative stance that, at least in hindsight, seems counterproductive.
"Ultimately, all those other issues overrode how well the school was doing academically," said Eugene Piccolo, the head of the state charter school association.
A SEEMING SUCCESS
Until the end, former lead teacher Wendy Swanson-Choi believed the school would survive. With its high test scores and long waiting list, it seemed too much of a success story not to.or authorizer - had given the school many nods of approval. In 2009, a $375,000 federal grant the state awarded TiZA brought guests from other charter schools into its classrooms, where, says Swanson-Choi, teachers had cultivated a culture of high expectations and discipline.
The state - about to rule on a crucial application for a new TiZA overseer,
And as recently as this past spring, the Department of Education gave TiZA an award for financial management.
At the same time, the state Department of Education repeatedly investigated TiZA - 19 inquiries, by TiZA'sown count. It was documents the agency had compiled that triggered the 2009 ACLU lawsuit accusing the school of promoting religion.
TiZA's leaders had an explanation for the scrutiny:that left only following after-school activities, including an Islamic studies program and Boy Scouts; Arabic textbooks that seemed to blend linguistics and religion.
Bias informed media accounts that first put the school in the limelight. And bias explained why starting in 2004, state officials kept stopping by the school and bringing up concerns - a prayer posted in the entryway; buses
David Hartman, the Education Department's charter school head, said there were many investigations because there were many credible complaints - from a former employee, in media reports, in the course of the ACLU litigation.
The school responded: Honest mistakes were resolved. Or there were explanations: Off-peak busing rates, for instance, were much more affordable. Or media reports that caught the state's eye got it all wrong.
"The media played a significant role in highlighting minor issues and turning them into big issues," said Abood Rahi, the father of two TiZA students who moved his family to Inver Grove Heights four years ago to enroll them at the school.
Later on, the state dropped by on standardized test days and paid a Utah company $30,000 to examine TiZA's scores, which had shot up after a slow start - to national acclaim. The investigation did not turn up evidence of cheating.
And most significantly, in 2009, the state passed a ban on out-of-state sponsors as part of a charter school law overhaul. TiZA argued that the ban, which went into effect two years later, singled it out in a bid to shutter it.
The law disqualified TiZA's longtime sponsor, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Islamic Relief.
TiZA scrambled throughout 2010 to find a new authorizer, pleading its case to more than a half dozen groups. Some ignored the school. Others flat out said TiZA's legal standoff with the ACLU made them too nervous.
A metro-area nonprofit called Novation Education Opportunities stepped forward. Asad Zaman, TiZA's founder and executive director, had until recently served on Novation's advisory council. That was bound to raise eyebrows, but Novation was the school's one shot.
And then Novation's bid stalled in a paperwork stalemate.
"The Department of Education didn't like the school - didn't like it from the start," said Wayne Jennings, a charter school founder and advocate whom Islamic Relief hired to oversee TiZA. "I've never seen a school so bombarded with audits and requests for information."
A GROWING DIVIDE
This past Dec. 30, Timothy Obitts, the lead attorney for Islamic Relief, fielded TiZA-related calls while waiting in line for a Disney World ride on his daughter's birthday.
It had been more than two years, millions of dollars in legal fees and more than 230,000 pages of documents filed with the court since the ACLU first sued.
Until recently, Islamic Relief and the state had been co-defendants in the ACLU lawsuit - accused of failing to spot and address the alleged violations at TiZA. The suit steadily eroded the relationship between school and overseer, costing TiZA its most important ally.
For Islamic Relief, the lawsuit was a costly distraction. For Obitts, catching flight after flight to the Twin Cities to attend legal hearings, the case was consuming.
Zaman and Hesham Hussein, the now-deceased co-founder of the school, had approached Islamic Relief founder Ahmad El Bendary at a Muslim American Society conference in Chicago in 2002.
The Twin Cities imams - both highly educated first-generation immigrants - spoke about starting a charter school where the children of East Asian and African immigrants would ease into American society while clinging to cultural pride.
"That really struck a chord with Dr. El Bendary," Obitts said. "It made perfect sense to him."
Islamic Relief, an aid agency that intervenes after natural and man-made disasters worldwide, was not in the business of overseeing schools. For TiZA, it would make an exception.
But the more the ACLU case stretched out, the more TiZA's relationship with Islamic Relief soured.
The ACLU files several cases in Minnesota each year, says executive director Chuck Samuelson, and they usually wrap up with an out-of-court settlement within a year. But settlement conferences in this case never brought the two sides any closer.
For TiZA to continue as a charter school, the ACLU wanted to see the school's top leaders go. And the school had to draw a starker line between its operations and the organizations - the Muslim American Society of Minnesota and the Minnesota Education Trust - that acted as its landlords.
"The changes we were insisting on were very, very substantial changes," said Peter Lancaster, the ACLU's lead attorney.
Much of the paperwork in the case is still sealed, but documents and U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank's opinions in the case establish this much: Over the years, Zaman and other TiZA leaders also played leadership roles in the Muslim American Society of Minnesota and the Minnesota Education Trust, straddling both sides of rental transactions fueled with taxpayer money. And once TiZA started renting its Inver Grove campus from the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, the rent shot up sevenfold.
Shamus O'Meara, TiZA's attorney, says the school did offer to make substantial changes, including in its leadership. Conflicts of interest were resolved in time, he said, and it was the state that signed off on rent aid applications.
TiZA's legal team fought back aggressively. It made four attempts to get the suit thrown out, once arguing that because of lapsed paperwork with the state, the ACLU of Minnesota did not even exist. And separately, the school challenged in court a $140,000 fine the state levied for teacher licensing violations.
Again and again, the court said no.
When Islamic Relief debated whether to renew its contract to oversee TiZA in 2009, Obitts says, the ACLU made the nonprofit an offer: Part ways with TiZA, and the ACLU would drop the suit against Islamic Relief.
"We said no," Obitts said. "We wanted the school to continue. We felt it was serving a real need."
But, says Obitts, things changed after he and El Bendary sat down to review documents before his deposition in the ACLU case. According to Obitts, El Bendary had never seen some of the paperwork bearing seven of his signatures, with his first name misspelled each time. Those included a statement that affirmed - incorrectly - that TiZA was renting from a nonreligious organization.
More documents that troubled Obitts turned up in coming months, ones that suggested the school's leaders pitched it as an Islamic school to the area Muslim community.
"We realized that, well, maybe there's something to what the ACLU has been saying," Obitts said. "Maybe we are not told the whole story."
After the new law passed, Islamic Relief told TiZA to start looking for a new sponsor. By 2011, the state and the nonprofit had settled with the ACLU and called on TiZA to cover their legal fees.
TiZA attorneys scoff at Islamic Relief's version of events. To them, Islamic Relief soured on the school simply because it resented getting drawn into a long lawsuit. It turned on the school because it desperately wanted out.
"I think Islamic Relief and the state agreed to throw the school under the bus," said Jennings, who was fired by the nonprofit at the end of 2010.
As to the forgery accusations, the school has pointed to the testimony of former Islamic Relief employees who said El Bendary authorized others to sign for him - and to his own testimony in which he said his staff once printed business cards with his name misspelled.
In any case, even supporters of the school say it should have done whatever it took to patch things up with Islamic Relief.
"If you don't have a decent relationship with your authorizer, things are going to go badly for you," Piccolo said. "They have the power to put you out of business."
AN UNSETTLING CONCLUSION
In 2009, several months before the ACLU sued TiZA, state Rep. Mindy Greiling toured TiZA's Inver Grove campus with other state legislators. On the heels of state and media scrutiny, the school hired a PR firm and a lobbyist, who helped organize the visit.
"I was very, very impressed with the school," she recalled. "You can just tell when things are clicking, and TiZA just sparkled with that ambience of students learning."
Greiling, a Democrat, thought the Education Department under then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, was looking to score political points with a tough stance: "I wondered if we weren't just picking on Muslims."
Greiling vocally defended the school, and she got hate mail from as far away as France - the kind of hostile correspondence that got TiZA to tighten security and appeal to the FBI.
But more recently, Greiling has fallen silent.
She doesn't buy that the ACLU, which nationally has fought a post-Sept. 11 backlash against Muslims, is driven by anti-Islamic bias. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton took over this year, and a new education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, came in with a reputation as an advocate for minority students. And, says Greiling, "Nobody can accuse Islamic Relief of discriminating against a school with mostly Muslim students."
Greiling was a major proponent of the 2009 changes to the state charter school law, including the ban on out-of-state authorizers. By most accounts, the changes strengthened oversight.
"No other state would even consider an out-of-state authorizer," said David Hansen of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. "What Minnesota did with the 2009 law is to make sure its authorizers take their work seriously."
And Greiling and other observers were confused by TiZA's efforts to ward off closure in the final months of its existence. To Piccolo, the school turned increasingly inward and combative. Its uncompromising stance - borne out of what he calls a "siege mentality," perhaps - did not pay off.
The school sued the state and Islamic Relief in district court and then in federal court. Both suits went nowhere.
It balked at signing a letter with Islamic Relief releasing the nonprofit from its commitment post-June 30, a move the school said was too risky.
But that letter was a key part of Novation's application to take over overseeing the school. Even though the state twice rejected Novation's application over the missing letter, the nonprofit and the school kept resubmitting the application - three times, without the letter.
Even Jennings, still a staunch supporter of TiZA, says he was baffled over the academy's refusal to sign that letter.
"It's easy to play Monday-morning quarterback," cautions O'Meara. "Those were extremely difficult, emotional decisions as the clock was ticking on the school."
But to Greiling, the solution to TiZA's problems seemed simple: Settle things with the ACLU. Smooth things out with Islamic Relief, and get a new authorizer.
"Why could such a promising school not get out of the mud and survive?" she said. "I still don't know."