Eight years ago, Nasha Shkola, a charter school in Brooklyn Park, opened as a heritage school of sorts, catering to the children of families with Russian backgrounds. This winter, 127 K-through-8 students are enrolled – enough that officials can envision the addition of high school classes.
Though the school was created to promote Russian culture and language, most of the classes are taught in English, said director Yelena Hardcopf. For many expats who fled after the Soviet Union’s demise three decades ago, she said, the school provides some assurance that not all things Russian will be lost.
“I definitely think we have a future,” Hardcopf said. “How do we keep our heritage alive and bring more kids to school who would be excited to learn the Russian language and culture? That’s the challenge, but we think it’s important.”
How that future unfolds may hinge on the outcome of a lawsuit, Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota, that seeks to curb the practice of schools like Nasha Shkola that, while formally open to any students who want to enroll, effectively serve certain ethnic or racial niches.
A cultural concern
Currently, Minnesota has 168 charter schools that educate more than 59,000 students – about 7 percent of the state’s public school enrollment – according to the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools.
Charter advocates say the schools, which are exempt from some public-school regulations, give parents more options and spur educational innovation. Critics, meanwhile, argue that charters siphon money and students from traditional public schools. At least one state lawmaker has suggested that a moratorium on charters might make sense, though no legislation to that end has been proposed during the current legislative session.
A growing complaint, however, is as much cultural as it is financial or structural – that charter schools are effectively contributing to the resegregation of public education, 66 years after the iconic U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education integrated America’s schools.
That sentiment fueled the lawsuit, which was filed by a group of parents in 2015 and is currently in mediation. The plaintiffs argue that the state of Minnesota is enabling a racial imbalance in schools through its charter policies, which contributes to an inadequate education for some students. (For more than two decades, charter schools have been exempted from state school desegregation rules).
“Our objective is to improve all schools for all kids, and we do think that integration and desegregation are important to that end,” said Daniel Shulman, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “So, we hope that we can arrive at a solution.”
For marginalized students
Both sides in the lawsuit point to competing scholarship that they claim supports their views about the efficacy of segregated schools. The Minnesota Association of Charter Schools also questions whether the state Education Department has the authority to enforce its desegregation rules on charter schools. (The agency declined to comment).
At any rate, three charter schools asked the judge in the case for protection from the lawsuit, including Friendship Academy of the Arts, a K-through-7 school that is housed in rented church space in south Minneapolis. That effort failed last June.
Executive Director B. Charvez Russell said the school provides an important option for parents because it uplifts and highlights the unique qualities of its students, most of whom are African-American. “We see you for who you are, for the great things that make up who you are,” an approach that is important for marginalized students, he said.
Ninety-six percent of the school’s 170 students are African-American. If that were to change – whether naturally or as the result of the lawsuit – Russell said the school would gladly adjust. “As we grow, we have to prepare to affirm any child who comes through our doors,” he said.
Joe Nathan, the executive director of the Center for School Change, which promotes innovation in public education, said people should be able to recognize the difference between families being forced to send their children to certain schools – the practice Brown v. Board of Education ended – and the choice to do so. “It’s also important to recognize,” he added, “that white and wealthy families have had options, for the past 150 years, to send their kids to schools that reflect what they want for their children.”
Watching the lawsuit
At Nasha Shkola, students are schooled in what Hardcopf called “the Russian way, so to speak,” with less reliance on technology, a rigorous Singapore math curriculum and classes in cursive writing. “There’s a comfort level there,” she said. “I think that’s important for some families.”
Other charters schools that cater to immigrant or refugee groups include the Hmong College Prep Academy and the Cesar Chavez Academy, neither of which responded to requests for comment. Another, Banaadir Academy, which largely educates the children of Somali families that are new to the country, responded in an email.
Director Joe Hutchins said Banaadir meets the needs of its students through strong English Language Learner programming and other support. “This focus of providing academic excellence, while allowing some unique cultural elements,” he wrote, “means that students have a better chance at success in school, which is not only important to families, but the education system as a whole.”