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Charter schools that serve immigrant and refugee families watching desegregation lawsuit

Nasha Shkola
For many expats who fled after the Soviet Union’s demise three decades ago, Nasha Shkola provides some assurance that not all things Russian will be lost.

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.

Yelena Hardcopf
Yelena Hardcopf
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.

Friendship Academy of the Arts
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Friendship Academy of the Arts is a K-through-7 school that is housed in rented church space in south Minneapolis.
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.”

B. Charvez Russell
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
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.
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.”

Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 03/10/2020 - 10:58 am.

    I don’t understand how charter schools started. Maybe someone could explain that, seriously. If you want your child to go to a private school, send them to a private school. And pay for it. If not, you go to a public school. What am I missing here?
    And why do we need a publicly funded school which promotes Russian heritage?

    • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 03/10/2020 - 01:37 pm.

      Charter schools exist because public school parents got tired of beating their heads against a wall with the public school administration and public employee unions on how the public schools were being run.

      Contrary to all of the whining by the teachers unions, the public schools are not chronically underfunded. In St Paul, we spend over $17K / year for each student. If you have a class of 20, that works out to $340K in funding for each classroom. What do we get in return? #45 in the nation in minority achievement. To top it off, the teachers are now on strike.

      It’s time to clean house. Fire everyone from the top on down and start over. Pay teachers on performance, not on how many worthless degrees they have. Does having a Phd in Education make you a better elementary school teacher, when you have no interest in science or math? NO!

      • Submitted by Joe Schantz on 03/10/2020 - 05:43 pm.

        So what do you think the per pupil expenditure should be in St Paul? Did you have a figure in mind?

        Would you stake your pay on how well 20 kids in an underfunded classroom do on a standardized math test?

      • Submitted by Betsy Larey on 03/15/2020 - 07:55 am.

        If students do not have parents who provide a home where they feel safe, have a nurturing environment, are fed well, and have parents who make sure they do their homework, nothing else matters.
        Schools can’t make up for what happens when kids head home. I have friends who teach in minority schools are they try so hard to help, but they can only do so much. The new plan to bus students from south Mpls to the north seems to me the only way they can get better performance numbers. This is beyond outrageous, not to mention it will fail because those parents will put their kids in private schools or move to the suburbs. It’s too bad school districts aren’t under one umbrella with the state.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 03/10/2020 - 04:30 pm.

      They originally started many years ago due to the public schools closing and it being a way to garner funding to keep Mpls neighborhood schools open. It then morphed into something else.
      I can see a few charter/magnet schools that fill a niche such as advanced standing, music or arts. But twin cities schools have gotten off base. We need equitable state funding based on needs and cost in area of real estate vs property taxes. We spend too much on busing kids all over with little to show for it. Yes culture is important, but shouldn’t that be primary in the family and community instead of the type of school or with some programs added into the schools? The other issue is some parents then can’t get to parent conferences when the school is out of their district or attend school programs. And what is the difference between the government funding a Russian culture program and a Catholic school at the end of the day. On one hand I can see what Mr. Nathan is saying, on the other, I am not so sure it does fit within the law.

  2. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 03/10/2020 - 11:01 am.

    If public schools are chronically underfunded, why are public dollars supporting their direct competitor?

    • Submitted by Wayne Jennings on 03/13/2020 - 12:38 am.

      I’ll address a part of this discussion, funding. The amount of money and where it comes from is often erroneous.
      1. Charter schools are public schools. They were established by the legislature in 1991 to increase school innovation.
      2. Charter and district schools are funded the same amount. X number of students times the state formula equals the revenue both get—same basis, same amount per student. (a few relatively other smaller differences favor district schools)
      3. Charter schools do not “siphon” or “steal” money from district schools. The St. Paul school district saw its enrollment fall from 50,000 to 32,000 students during the 1960s and 1970s. People chose suburban schools. The enrollment reduction predated charter schools. No one accused suburban schools of siphoning money from St. Paul district schools. Districts reduce or increase expenditures based on enrollment. Charter schools that don’t attract enough students, and therefore revenue, shut down–several have.
      4. District schools don’t have to lose students to charter schools. All they have to do is visit successful charter schools to learn what attracts parents. It seems easier to demonize charters than to learn from them.
      5. District schools have far more resources and facilities than charter schools, who sometimes end up in church basements with little equipment and few materials. Still, parents chose them.
      Why? See # 4 above.

  3. Submitted by Barbara Skoglund on 03/10/2020 - 12:38 pm.

    Charter schools were created because the cookie cutter approach of traditional public schools does not meet the needs of many students. While, publicly funded, charters do not “compete” for money with traditional public schools. They only get state head count $. They get NO property tax funding. They are not just PUBLIC schools because of their funding, they also have to follow all public school regulations. For example charters have to hire licensed teachers, unlike private schools. Charters have to be open to all students, unlike private schools. Charters have to accept and serve students who have IEPs and special education needs, unlike private schools.

    Without a project based charter school, willing to meet the needs of my bright Aspie daughter she would be a barely literate high school dropout. Instead she is almost finished with her AA degree and well on her way to being a contributing member of society. Our “traditional” public school locked her up in an Aspie classroom where she learned nothing for two years. Luckily I found a good charter and got her out. Our “traditional” public school allowed her to be bullied, harassed and assaulted. Luckily I found a charter that wouldn’t allow that! I could write a book!

    Charter’s allow more kids to find a successful fit and have a successful K-12 experience. Because families “self-select” by choosing charters to meet their child’s needs, they do tend to be less integrated than many “traditional” public schools. My daughter’s charter was actually racially integrated, but has a very high % of Aspie and ADHD kids on IEPs. The small setting and anti-bullying climate at Avalon draws them. Those charters with a language or heritage focus end up with populations that no surprise, come from those heritages.

    Sadly, there is no one size fits all school structure. The massive traditional public schools leave so many kids behind. One of the downsides is the self-selection segregation. Though that sits WAY better with me than the systemic racism that causes neighborhood segregation in traditional public and private schools.

    • Submitted by Steve Samuelson on 03/10/2020 - 01:09 pm.

      “Charter’s allow more kids to find a successful fit and have a successful K-12 experience”

      So you’d support the state shutting down under-performing charters?

    • Submitted by Betsy Larey on 03/10/2020 - 01:37 pm.

      If they get head count money, they are being supported by the government. I have no problem with parents who enroll their kids in private schools. But taking money from public schools so you can have schools for Russian kids, Somalian kids et al is just not right.
      On another note, weren’t parents complaining years ago about their special needs kids being separated from regular classrooms? And then they changed and wanted them to be mainstreamed.
      It seems to me everyone wants what “THEY” want. That’s the problem in this country.

    • Submitted by Joe Nathan on 03/11/2020 - 01:02 pm.

      Barbara, thanks for sharing your experiences.

      Charter public schools enroll a higher % of low imcome, higher % of kids of color, and higher % of kids who don’t speak English as a first language than do Mpls district schools and district schools around the state.

      Also – for those concerned about diversity: How do you feel about district pubic schools that enroll 87% white students (North Branch), 89.3 % white (Waconia), 89.6% white (Orono), 92.7% white (Chisago Lakes), or 93% white (Delano) ? Figures come from Mn Dept of Education report card.

      Families of color have been pleading for decades for curriculum and faculty that are more reflective of their culture. Some families are satisfied with district schools, some are empowered by the charter option.

  4. Submitted by Joe Smith on 03/10/2020 - 01:16 pm.

    I’m confused, are there good charter schools and bad charter schools depending on which culture is featured? I thought all charter schools were bad and took away from the diversity of public schools, at least that is what I read here at Minnpost. I personally feel all charter schools are good if they help the children, our public schools surely are not helping enough children.

    • Submitted by Betsy Larey on 03/10/2020 - 01:44 pm.

      No problem with charter schools if they take away public funding. It’s called a private school. You want your own school for your race religion or creed? Pay for it

      • Submitted by Joe Smith on 03/10/2020 - 02:36 pm.

        Betsy, why not vouchers for every student and let the parents decide what school is best for their child?

        • Submitted by Betsy Larey on 03/15/2020 - 08:13 am.

          Because public education is free. It was never intended for parents to take money from public schools so they can go to a “different” school. That’s called a private school. Want to go to a private school? Pay for it. But it is not right to take money away from public schools so a child can go to a school based on ethnicity, race, and special interests. I was okay when it started with music and performing arts, but I’m not okay when it became a private endeavor for Russians, Hmongs, and now African Americans.
          Maybe somebody can answer this for me? Would it be okay if parents started a school for white kids when their inner city school is 96% African American?
          There is a reason why this lawsuit is going forward and will be successful.

          • Submitted by Joe Smith on 03/26/2020 - 07:51 am.

            Betsy, pubic schools are not free, we pay for them through our tax dollars. All vouchers do is give the parents the same amount of money that the students represents to the district. Same thing, our tax dollars send little Jimmy to public school or our tax dollars send little Jimmy to the school his parents want him to go to.

  5. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 03/10/2020 - 01:41 pm.

    Joe Nathan is saying that it’s okay for black families to have their own school, because for many years whites did. I believe the schools he’s referring to are private schools. Parents pay to send their children to private schools. Asking the government to pay for a school for your race, religion or creed should be against the law. But I guess that’s why there’s a lawsuit now. This is nothing short of reverse discrimination. And you wonder why people voted for Trump. BTW, I am a Democrat but this is just not right

  6. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 03/10/2020 - 05:37 pm.

    A huge part of America’s uniqueness and success at mixing all us immigrants together until we eventually marry across religious and cultural prohibitions that were law in “the Old Country,” is the effect of free public schools on the process of assimilation of those immigrants. All colors creeds, ethnicities, language backgrounds, were dumped in free schools that were provided by public taxes. And where English was spoken as the language of instruction–imagine that!

    Where one falls here on the wisdom of the lawsuit depends on how sincerely and fully one values the effect of desegregation of our publicly-funded schools on our society. Put another way: it depends on how much we value immigrants’ integration into mainstream American society, rather than some off-shoot of a sub-culture or a foreign culture that wishes to maintain its purity despite being in the United States. It depends on whether, in Minnesota, we are willing to insist that poor minorities of color get the same quality of education that white Minnesotans often get.

    Currently, the charter movement in Minnesota is not producing quality education for its students, in too many cases. One can name this or that academy that we’re told does well, but Minnesota permits too many charters to just keep going despite failing grades for the school itself.

    Big question: Should our tax dollars support exclusively ethnic schools? Should we call out segregation when that’s what has happened too our publicly-funded charter schools?

    And: the transfer of successful experimentation from charters to regular public schools? Nonexistent.

    This lalwsuit’s success might just shake up the complacency our public school system has fallen into regarding the noxious effects of the privatizing charter school movement

  7. Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 03/11/2020 - 08:02 am.

    If there is a better example of Democracy in action than people using their tax money to educate their children as they see fit, I can’t think of it.

    If there’s a better example of “speaking truth to power” than putting the best interests of our kids ahead of teachers unions and politicians, I haven’t seen it.

    Charter schools frighten the self serving defenders of a failing system. That is a good thing.

  8. Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 03/11/2020 - 09:21 am.

    Having spent over 40 years working in traditional schools I certainly recognize the value and great work that is being done in public schools in Minnesota. That being said, I think it is extremely important to allow parents to make the choice of where they send their child to go to school – particularly in urban areas. Why would a parent send their child to a school they did not feel was safe? Or where their child was bullied? Or where their culture was not respected and celebrated? Parents need options – good, well run, public charter schools offer settings that are safe, inclusive, and personalized. If parents do their homework – review the school’s MDE Report Card, visit the school, talk to teachers, and speak with other parents – good choices are available.

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/11/2020 - 11:00 am.

    The charter school movement was originated by the American Federation of Teachers in New York decades ago. Because of a flurry of proposals to implement educational innovations all over the country in the 1960s, it was thought at the time that, rather than a scatter-shot approach, with no real organization or means of disseminating information about successes and failures, new approaches and / or instructional techniques could be / ought to be tried out in real-world classrooms with real-world children.

    The thinking at the time was that successful innovations, less-successful innovations, and relative failures would all be documented and shared with the public school district that was sponsoring the charter school – subsidizing it, in effect, with public school dollars.

    That original purpose was one that I, during my practitioner days, fully supported. Alas, that’s not what has transpired. Far too often, as Ms. Sullivan laid out above, the legality of charter schools has been used to undermine both the mission and the practice of public education, and has used public dollars to do so. Preserving ethnic customs, languages and heritages is important, but is not (I’d argue, should not be) the mission of public schools. Support is one thing, advocacy is something entirely different. Charters were very quickly used in the South to resegregate schools after Brown v. Board of Education, and in an irony that the gods must surely be enjoying, is now sometimes used by black parents to resegregate schools to emphasize black history and culture – more or less the reverse of what white racists used to practice. Neither is desirable in a society that hopes to be democratic.

    The philosophical validity of the current practice is a debate for another time, but my point is that too many charter schools are using public school dollars to benefit narrow segments of the community and / or society in ways that have little application to the larger community or society. That’s not the purpose for which charters were intended, and I’ve not supported charter schools for a long time as a result.

    Instead of augmenting public education by sharing new and / or innovative practices that would benefit all children, charters have too often refused to share innovations, paid for with public dollars, with their public school counterparts and the general public. I’ve even run across cases of a charter program, paid for with school district funds, asking the school district that funded the program in the first place to pay the charter for materials generated by the program the school district has already paid for.

    Further, many charters have practiced little or no innovation at all, and have instead adopted traditional instructional methods, thus emphasizing that the underlying goal or motivation of their founder(s) is simply separation from public schools. That motivation shows up in the fact that charter school students, as a whole, do not perform markedly better academically (using current measuring methodology) than their public school counterparts. Where academic performance IS significantly better, the improvement can often be attributed to the fact that very few charter schools have interscholastic athletic programs, so children can be, and often are, more focused on academic tasks.

    Mr. O’Keefe’s statements are precisely the sort of statements one can find in the literature of both the 1850s, defending the lack of formal education for slave children, and the early 1960s, when protecting the racial divide was still a “thing” a century after the Civil War had settled the question of who was a citizen.

  10. Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 03/11/2020 - 11:44 am.

    “Mr. O’Keefe’s statements are precisely the sort of statements one can find in the literature of both the 1850s, defending the lack of formal education for slave children, and the early 1960s, when protecting the racial divide was still a “thing” a century after the Civil War had settled the question of who was a citizen.”

    In the current year, this statement represents the extremes defenders of the status quo will go to protect their throttle hold on education.

    The irony of it is not lost either, considering minority parents are at the fore front of the charter movement.

    In my observation, education is one more of a growing number of issues seperating minority populations from the Democrat party.

  11. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 03/11/2020 - 12:49 pm.

    Bob DeBoer, a pioneering educator who had to cope with polio for much of his life, started a chartered public school that received national attention for is innovative ways of working with special needs students. The school has trained hundreds of district & charter educators to use its techniques. Bob recently died and the Strib did a story about him:

  12. Submitted by James Baker on 03/11/2020 - 02:03 pm.

    I mostly agree with Ray Schoch’s insightful observations and would add the following.

    Sociologists know that organizations’ cultures don’t easily transfer due to different personalities, ideologies, philosophical ethos, homogeneous customs, practices, power dynamics, funding levels and how dollars are allocated, all of which, over time, come to uniquely define an organization as bureaucratic. In general, bureaucracies, large or small, are usually very stable—for good or ill—and, as such, resistant to substantive change from within.

    So here we are, nearly 30 years into this experiment with not a whole lot of new productivity to show for it in either the charter or traditional sectors—except that some students feel more comfortable surrounded by others who think, look and talk like they do.

    But looking at schools in terms of “achievement gains” more pragmatically and from a research standpoint, in schools comprising homogeneous demographics, low income students’ (or other social-cultural minorities’) thinking and background knowledge are narrowed to and possibly limited at the depth and upper end to what peers bring from outside of school. If the majority of students in a school are living in families where daily stress tends to be above normal and educational background tends to be below that of students in schools whose families have higher education, the low-income school-wide conversation is not going to be as conceptually rich and sophisticated as in the school with a more varied mix of cultural, educational and family income backgrounds.

    This is essentially the reasoning that motivated the 1954 Supreme Court Brown vs Board of Education decision that found racial segregation unconstitutional—effectively demanding an end to legal segregation. The rationale is no less valid today than it was in 1954.

    Stanford University education researcher Sean Reardon doesn’t claim one total fix for better schooling outcomes, but does see integration as a crucially important cornerstone without which there will be little hope for significantly improving academic achievement of marginalized children of low income and racial minority families.

  13. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/16/2020 - 07:29 pm.

    Well said Mr Baker….”So here we are, nearly 30 years into this experiment with not a whole lot of new productivity to show for it in either the charter or traditional sectors—except that some students feel more comfortable surrounded by others who think, look and talk like they do.” in fact in some ways many of the charters have poorer statistics then the public school numbers, drain money from those same public schools and have limitations on who can enroll. Oh I can forget to mention how many close down at a moments notice and have leadership that walks away with the budget. I do not think I am going to take my kid and leave in the face public schools racism, and slow response innovation was the correct response. The problem is that once patents take their student through the process they become less involved and a whole bevy of privateers ending up being spokes persons simple because they stay around. In fact it a direct parallel to administrators who end up being spokes persons in the publics. The basic truth is that under funding schools will not bring results. People being separated will not bring results. Income disparity will not bring results. Redefinition of all of those will. The only hope for the culture to improve in inside the public’s where at least there is broad accountability or at least where there can be. No doubt there are exceptions in the charters as there are always are wiping everything. But exception does not seem to have become the rule.

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