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Continued: Charter school Q & A: 'To familiarize, not proselytize'

Recently, a Minnesota Department of Education review found that the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy charter school generally complied with separation of church/state rules. Still, the department told the Inver Grove Heights school, which has mostly Muslim students, to make minor adjustments in scheduling and transportation related to voluntary prayer and after-school religious study. The case raised the question: How should matters of faith be handled in public charter schools -- especially when some are designed for cultural or racial groups with a shared religion? Editorial writer Denise Johnson discussed the issues with a group of charter representatives and other experts. They are:

Mo Chang, Executive director and principal of the Community School of Excellence charter school.

Morgan Brown, assistant commissioner, Minnesota Department of Education.

Joe Nathan, director, Center for School Change, Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota.

Mohamed Osman, founder, Dugsi Academy charter school.

Abdulkadir Osman, director, Dugsi Academy.

Beth Topoluk, director of charter schools, Friends of Ascension.

Johnson: What are the state and federal legal requirements regarding charter schools and public schools generally?

Brown: The law says they must be nonsectarian in hiring, admissions policies and all other operations. That doesn't mean charters cannot have some interactions with faith-based organizations. For instance, some charters lease space from faith-based groups. There are situations where they can have interaction.

Nathan: I was a district public school teacher and administrator for 14 years. We could teach about -- but not promote -- any particular religion. That was the same expectation for charters when the law was originally written and adopted. Because questions were raised [about charters being used to set up religious schools], we included explicit language in the law. Charters should encourage understanding and respect of different cultures and religions -- not promote any particular religion as better.

Four of you represent charter schools, some mostly with Muslim, Hmong or Christian students. How do your schools strike the balance between accommodating religion without endorsing it?

A. Osman: Dugsi, the name of our school, comes from a Somali word which means school -- but also can mean shelter. We can accommodate any religion. On our school calendar you see holidays of Islam, but most of our staff is non-Muslim, so we also have time off for Christian holidays.

M. Osman: A charter school must be nonsectarian; that's the law. In terms of telling students they must do this or that religiously, it's not there. We don't do it.

Chang: While [faith] is a part of the Hmong culture, it is not the emphasis at our school. Language and culture [broadly] is the focus. We have some students who believe in traditional Hmong religions, and about 30 percent of our kids are Christian. So we teach about the shaman, and we compare and contrast religions. But we don't promote them.

Topoluk: Friends of Ascension has two divisions -- one to support Ascension grade school, which is a parochial school run by that parish. The charter division sponsors and authorizes 18 charter schools. All of them use either the content-based core knowledge or classical curriculums.

Our goal is to impart a fair, just education, and that includes having students understand other religions. Core knowledge introduces students in the early grades to major religions, because religion is a shaping force in history. The goal is to familiarize, not proselytize ... the tone of teaching is respect and balance.

In connection with TiZA school, concerns about a double standard were raised. When nativity scenes or Christmas trees are not allowed at public schools, do charters with mostly non-Christian kids get special treatment regarding faith? The other side of that coin, of course, is that traditional schools have holidays based on the Christian religion. Is that unfair to non-Christian families?

Nathan: On the double-standard issue, school choice is designed to honor and encourage understanding of many cultures, and more of that is happening in traditional public schools because of what charters have done.

Brown: It is a charter and general public school issue. Over the years there has been disagreement about what is appropriate accommodation of religion and what comes down as actual promotion. With a Christmas tree -- is it secular, or is it a religious or faith-based display? Can kids sing songs that have references to religion? Can my child bring a Bible to school? These things come up continually at public schools and are not new. The new issue is the diversity of faiths and the variety of accommodations that need to be made for them.

Federal guidance is pretty clear about this. In either type of school, the board and staff may not direct or promote a particular faith.

Topoluk: Another way this comes up in religious expressions is in student schoolwork. A child may produce something that is very religious -- a drawing or symbol. When parents tour a school and see student artwork with a religious theme displayed, they might say, "Oh, my gosh, you are promoting religion." Some of our schools have had community meetings over this; they've learned the law says employees and board members cannot promote or discourage any religion. Yet the law is equally clear that students may be involved in student-led prayer and express themselves religiously in their work for school assignments.

Minnesota spends millions to help create more integrated schools. Because of the cultural, ethnic focus of many charter schools, many are racially segregated. Is that a contradiction?

M. Osman: Our goal is the academic success of the kids. School has to find ways to collect both cultures; kids should be aware of the Somali and mainstream culture so they can meld them. Somali culture values trust, courage, hard work, success, generosity, community -- mainstream culture also values these things. Religion is part of culture. It can create some friction in the melting pot of America, where there are religions from all over the world. But the core culture is a blending of values to be American.

Chang: Yes, with our focus on culture, language and achievement, we create an environment with a sense of community, of trust, of respect, of valuing education. I've worked in the big traditional schools, and that same sense is not there for many of our families. Our kids and parents feel welcome because they see the displays of their culture and values of respect, responsibility. They see staff people who look like them. I'm Hmong; they can relate to me. It makes a huge difference. In this environment, give them time and kids achieve. Our school is making AYP [annual yearly progress, a reporting measure required by federal No Child Left Behind rules], and we had no discipline problems at all last year. How many schools can say that?

Topoluk: With regard to segregation, if a school were established with a Western European focus, that would create an outcry. But there is no denying the achievement gap involving students of color. Research indicates that single-gender schools improve academic results. Similarly, results of culturally focused schools are worth watching. If they eliminate or reduce the achievement gap, who would say that's not a great thing?

Brown: Our voluntary desegregation efforts were put in place because of the state decision to move away from court-ordered plans. There are parents for whom it is an absolute priority to send their children to an integrated school, and they should have that option. State support of that voluntary option is in no way second-guessing the decisions of parents. You cannot equate the de jure segregation of the past with some of the de facto practices of today.

This came up during the TiZA review and applies to many other schools. A culturally focused school does not equal a separatist curriculum. When a school has students of one racial background, it can be [wrongly] assumed that it is separatist. But when you go to the schools, you see that is not the case. They all comply with state student-achievement standards.

Beth, your group is called Friends of Ascension, and Ascension is a Catholic Church. Are the schools overly influenced by that particular faith?

Topoluk: No. This group started to help the Ascension school in north Minneapolis stay open, and that division still works with that school. But our charter division now works with schools that include students of a wide variety of faiths. We absolutely don't establish a religion. We're into the results for students.

What were the lessons learned from the TiZA case?

Brown: The TiZA case was the first time the state formally did this kind of review. ... We focused on when does a culture focus cross over to promoting religion.

Nathan: We learned that as Minnesota becomes more diverse we need clarity about school facilities and transportation in connection with voluntary prayer. And though there is understandable anger from many Americans toward a tiny faction of people from the Middle East, that is sometimes unfairly focused on citizens here who just want to help their children achieve in school. Part of what's been lost in the religion discussion is the school's success. TiZA enrolls 70 percent low-income and English-language learners, yet they are making AYP. They have high expectations and a longer school day and year, consistent with research that shows lower-income students need more time to master English, reading and writing.

Chang: In the big traditional schools, our Hmong students might be quiet and not raise their hands. In our school they raise their hands. They are confident and proud about who they are. When kids feel comfortable, confident, respected they will learn. These are universal values that all schools should have.

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