An Inver Grove Heights charter school accused of promoting Islam is doing most things right, but it must change how it handles issues related to prayer and busing, the state Education Department said.
Zuhur Abukar, 12, held a sign up indicating her bus was going to Apple Valley after school Monday at Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy in Inver Grove Heights. The state Department of Education has raised concerns that buses wait until after-school activities are finished and not when classes are finished.
An Inver Grove Heights charter school must change the way it handles issues related to Muslim prayer in school and busing for after-school religious instruction or face repercussions, the Minnesota Department of Education said Monday.
Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, a public school with mostly Muslim students, has been accused of blurring the line between religion and state by promoting Islam, which the school has denied.
Most of the school's operations follow state charter school law and federal guidelines on prayer in schools, but the department found two areas of concern, said Morgan Brown, an assistant commissioner with the department.
School director Asad Zaman said he takes the state's concerns seriously and will address them as soon as possible. He also took the report as vindication, saying: "I now have proof that this is not a religious school."
But the report said the school may be violating the law by allowing voluntary Friday prayers that most students attend to take place on school grounds. Those 30-minute prayers take up so much time that they may be a burden to non-praying students, and could mean the school isn't teaching students for as many hours a year as the state requires. Letting teachers participate, even though they don't lead prayers, may give students the impression that the school endorses Islam.
The state also said it was concerned about the appearance created by the school's bus schedule. The school does not provide busing for students immediately after classes, instead it waits until the end of after-school activities, which include a religious studies course run by the Muslim American Society that more than half the students take.
The school characterized the concerns as "minor," pointing out that the department found no fault with the school's curriculum, library or accommodations for five-minute student prayers held Monday through Thursday.
If the school fails to address the concerns, the department could pull public funding or even close the school, though that outcome is unlikely, said Brown. The school does not have a deadline by which to respond, he said, but the state expects to receive a letter from the school within a few weeks, and the busing issue must be resolved by the time school starts this fall.
The Department of Education based its findings on interviews with school staff members and a substitute teacher interviewed by the news media, documents and two site visits, one of them unannounced.
Public scrutiny of the school heated up this spring, when Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten questioned whether the school was illegally promoting the Muslim faith.
Zaman said the K-8 school has received death and arson threats as well as numerous harassing anti-Muslim messages as a result, frightening students and prompting the school to install a security system that requires people to buzz in at the door.
Police stepped up patrols this spring in response to the threats. They also responded to a call from the school on Monday afternoon, when school officials scuffled with a television reporter who Zaman said showed up at the school unannounced.
As many as 80 to 90 percent of the school's students are Muslim, said Zaman, adding that he doesn't know for sure because, by law, he can't ask them.
Many teachers and all but 50 to 70 of the school's 430 students are released from class at midday on Friday -- Islam's holy day -- for prayers led by parent volunteers or community members. Students who don't want to pray read or engage in a quiet activity.
After school, students have the option of signing up for several activities, including the fee-based Muslim studies course, a free secular program offered by the school, and Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.
The school contracts for buses later in the day because it saves more than $100,000 and the time meshes better with most parents' work schedules, Zaman said.
But state law requires schools to provide transportation at the end of the normal school day, the department says.
Zaman said he's sure the school is meeting the state's minimum for hours spent in class. As for state officials' worry that letting teachers pray fosters a perception that the school backs Islam, "We need to sit down and talk to them about what, in their minds, would not create that perception," he said.
As a public school that, like others in Minnesota, receives state funding on a per-pupil basis, the charter school must not promote or endorse a religion. The charter school, which is sponsored by Islamic Relief USA, is projected to receive about $3.8 million in state funding for this school year.
The Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also launched an as-yet incomplete investigation of the charter school in response to media reports.
If their report does uncover problems, "We're concerned that this would apply to other charter schools, as well, that are chartered by Christian groups," said executive director Chuck Samuelson, who said changes to Minnesota charter school law in recent years have resulted in less oversight of the schools.
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016