When Eugene Kharam arrived in the Twin Cities from Russia about 15 years ago, he was 12 years old and excited about receiving an American education.
School came easy for Kharam. Too easy, in fact. For almost two years, he did very little while his classmates caught up. By that point, Kharam was the one lagging behind in school.
"That's a very common story we hear from Russian parents," Kharam said. "Their biggest disappointment with the American education system is with math especially."
Kharam is now the lead teacher at Nasha Shkola, a new school that opened last week in Minnetonka. Most notably, it is the Midwest's first charter school with an emphasis on the Russian language and culture.
While school leaders want to make sure children of recent Russian immigrants don't fall behind with their education, they also hope to cater to students who simply want to learn more about the Russian language and its rich culture.
So far, about 84 students in grades K-5 are enrolled at Nasha Shkola, which means "Our School" in Russian. It is not an immersion school; all classes are taught in English except one 45-minute daily Russian language lesson.
"At the end of the day, it's a community school," Kharam said. "We want to create a community here. We want to create a safe place for our community."
The genesis for the school came from the St. Paul-based Slavic Community Center about six years ago. Through the center, many Russian immigrants voiced their concerns about how their children were falling behind in traditional public schools. Many complained that it was difficult to communicate with their children's teachers.
Gedaly Meerovich, one of the school's founders and current community outreach director, said his children's teachers in St. Paul often told him everything was fine when that wasn't the case.
"If my son is making a B, everything is not fine," he said. "I expect an A, A-plus. Russian parents expect more."
After an exhaustive search around the Twin Cities for a suitable school location, Meerovich and other Nasha Shkola founders settled on Minnetonka. The Minnetonka Christian Academy, which was downsizing, was interested in leasing some of its space.
Nasha Shkola officially became a charter school when it was approved by Innovative Quality Schools, a Minneapolis charter school authorizer that is responsible for about 12 schools in Minnesota.
Most of the students enrolled at Nasha Shkola come from north and west metro suburban cities, where there are significant populations of Russian immigrants. But some come from as far away as Kanebec County.
The majority of the school's current students have at least one parent who is Russian. Many are fluent in Russian but may not be proficient in reading or writing Russian, school leaders said.
The school also has some students who are originally from Russia and were adopted by American parents, who want them to stay connected to their culture and see Nasha Shkola as a good fit.
Liza Lindman has always home-schooled her two children. But when Lindman heard about Nasha Shkola, she decided it was a good fit for her kids, who were both fluent in Russian, her native language.
Each day, the students travel almost two hours from their home in Ogilvie to attend the school. So far, the long drive is worth it, says Lindman.
She says she's been impressed with Nasha Shkola's rigorous academic curriculum. The school requires students to wear uniforms, features the Singapore math curriculum, and aims for future graduating seniors to have about two years worth of college credits earned while in high school.
"My children are fluent in Russian, but it's good for them to be in a place where they hear more Russian," she said.
On a recent day at the Nasha Shkola playground, almost no Russian is heard -- just the chatter of boys and girls getting to know each other in English.
Natasha Lindman, Liza's fifth-grade daughter, ticks off the names of the friends she's made in just two days at Nasha Shkola.
"I've always wanted to go to a school and this one is very helpful," she said. "If you have a problem, you can ask in either Russian or English."
Liza Socolova, also a fifth-grader, agreed.
"It's pretty awesome to be able to talk in a different language with my friends."
Meerovich said the school plans to add a grade each year until it is serving kindergarten through 12th grade.
"Our school, and this is what I really want to emphasize, really belongs to the community," he said. "The community will decide its future."
Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469