Parents at one of Minnesota’s oldest charter schools have mobilized, pushing for major changes to improve the quality of education their kids receive.

As a result of their complaints, several longtime teachers at Cedar Riverside Community School were let go days before the 2018-19 school year ended, and more teachers quit in support of their colleagues.

The frustrated parents say their children are lagging behind state standards for reading and math, and charge that teachers were putting more emphasis on disciplining than teaching students. Others say the quality of instruction has been so poor that many of their children in third and fourth grades cannot read or write.

Abdullahi Alibarre, a parent and a member of the charter school’s governing board, said a majority of the teachers whose contracts were not renewed were longtime teachers at the school. For years, he said, parents have been complaining about the school’s lack of quality education, but only now changes are being made.

“If the kids are not learning, we have to change things,” Alibarre said.

The school’s new executive director, Bert Strassburg, said parents were the driving force behind the decision not to renew the teachers’ contracts, adding that he’s focused on meeting parents’ needs. More than half of the 19 teachers from the 2018-19 school year “will not be returning to teach” in the coming school year, according to information the Star Tribune obtained through a public data request.

“Our students are not achieving at the level that we want,” Strassburg said. “We want a school that is not just surviving but thriving. And so with that, changes needed to be made.”

Some former teachers are fighting back through an online petition, calling for the removal of Strassburg and all board members.

“All the teachers from third through eighth grade have been let go,” said Jennifer Weber, a former staffer who resigned last August after Strassburg took the helm. “And then the teachers from the other spots in the school resigned when they found out what happened.”

Academic slide

The pre-K through eighth-grade school, located in the Cedar-Riverside Plaza apartment complex in Minneapolis — home to thousands of Somali American families — has struggled for some time with high student and leadership turnover and low achievement.

In the 2017-18 school year, only 21% of the school’s 145 students were proficient in math, down 5 percentage points from the previous year, according to state education data. In reading, 33% were proficient, down several percentage points from each of the previous two years.

The school’s authorizer, Pillsbury United Communities, a nonprofit that oversees more than 20 charter school systems in Minnesota, said it has been closely monitoring the situation at Cedar Riverside Community School. In late March, Pillsbury sent a letter to the school, laying out actions school leaders had to take, including participating in board training, reviewing and revising discipline practices, assessing the school’s hiring and firing process and improving the relationship between the board and the executive director.

Pillsbury officials said they plan to meet with school leaders later this week to determine any further actions.

In recent years, Pillsbury has shut down three charter schools for failing to meet the state’s academic goals, among other reasons. In the 2018-19 school year, Pillsbury closed Learning for Leadership, a chronically low-performing charter school in northeast Minneapolis.

The Minnesota Association of Charter Schools leaders say they also have been concerned about the school’s slow decline.

The association’s leader attended a May school board meeting to talk about roles and responsibilities in charter school governance and ways the board could improve its operation.

Cedar Riverside Community School, which touts ensuring the academic success of English language learners through rigorous curriculum and specialized support, has a historic presence in the charter school community. A pioneer in the charter school movement, it opened in 1993 and serves mostly East African students. The school celebrated its 25th anniversary last year.

“Being one of the pioneering schools [in the state], it had a very good reputation,” said Eugene Piccolo, the director of the association. “But over time, it did not fulfill the expectations people have. Hopefully, they can turn it around.”

Changes underway

Strassburg said he’s anticipating 152 students in the fall and is overhauling the charter school. He’s buying new reading and math curricula, putting in place specialized support to help underperforming students and hiring qualified teachers who can strike a balance between disciplining students and giving instruction.

Three teacher positions are still unfilled, said Strassburg. In the summer, both returning and new staff will also go through a weeklong training on how to work with parents.

“We here are committed to focusing on meeting the academic and the social and emotional needs of our students and having the staff on board that are excited and committed to doing that,” he said.

Meanwhile, at a recent meeting, about a dozen parents said they are going to pull their kids from the school if the situation doesn’t improve in a year. Most lauded the charter school as an attractive option because it nurtures their culture and is a short walking distance from their homes.

Rahmo Mahamud said her third-grade son never brings homework back from school. She said she quit her day job to volunteer in the school and help boost his and her other kids’ learning.

Ana Ponce, 22, said her brother Oswaldo Ponce is in fourth grade but reads at a first- or second-grade level. She said her brother has been going to the school since kindergarten and has worked with different teachers and his reading hasn’t improved.

“My family wants to give the school one more chance,” she said. “The school has promised us that they are going to make changes and we want to see what those changes will be.”