Once hailed as a success story, Cedar Riverside Community School's enrollment and academic performance have been in decline for years. The school will close permanently June 30. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Pillsbury United Communities plans to close Cedar Riverside Community School, one of the first charter schools in the country, school board chair Janet Youngers announced at a board meeting on Thursday. Unless the school wins an appeal, it will close as soon as June 30.

A spokesperson for Pillsbury United Communities, the charter school’s authorizer, confirmed the decision not to renew the school’s contract via email.

“The decision was the result of the regular Quality School Review process that occurs at the end of every school’s contract,” Pillsbury United Communities said in a statement. “This extensive review process was conducted by Pillsbury United staff and external experts who unanimously agreed that school closure was in the best interest of students and families of the CRCS community. Pillsbury United remains steadfast to its commitment to ensuring the students attending schools within its portfolio receive the high-quality education they deserve.”

In its letter announcing its intent not to renew the contract, Pillsbury United cited “significant struggles” in academics as a primary factor, as well as operational and governance concerns.

In the board meeting, Bert Strassburg, the school’s executive director, called some of the assertions in Pillsbury United’s report “misinformation.”

Last June, parents representing nearly two thirds of the school’s students submitted a petition to Pillsbury asking for the removal of Strassburg and the board of directors. With 103 students as of March 26, enrollment at the school has declined 25 percent since March 2020, and by nearly half since the 2017-2018 school year. Many of the students come from East African immigrant and refugee families: More than 90 percent of the students are Black, and more than half are English language learners. More than a dozen parents told Sahan Journal their children had not received an adequate education since Strassburg took leadership.

“We would like to see immediate action taken by Pillsbury United to terminate Bert Strassburg’s leadership and replace him with a better leader that understands the needs of our students and the school as a whole,” the petition stated. It cited “the constant change of teachers in the classrooms, lack of TAs in the classroom, and technological resources for the students especially during a pandemic.”

Strassburg told Sahan Journal this fall that the parents making complaints were not reflective of all families at the school.

“The hard part is in many of these situations one message will be out there from one group of individuals, but then when we talk to a majority of our families, we’re getting a different message,” he said. 

As the school’s authorizer, Pillsbury United plays a key oversight role but has limited authority to implement changes at the school. Changing the terms of—or choosing not to renew—a contract is one of the primary ways an authorizer can enact changes at a troubled school.

Strassburg did not immediately respond to an interview request after Pillsbury’s decision was announced. 

Cedar Riverside Community School, founded in 1993, was the fifth charter school in Minnesota—and in all of the United States. Its early leaders envisioned a school within Riverside Plaza to serve “Minneapolis’ Ellis Island” of Cedar Riverside and its large immigrant population. Many families have been involved with the school for more than a decade.

Eleven years ago, the Star Tribune listed it as a “Beat the Odds” school, and reported that it was performing better in math than any other Minnesota school with high poverty levels. Part of the secret, the director said at the time, was high levels of parent involvement.

But over the past decade, the school entered a period of decline. Test scores fell. Parents expressed concern about low academic performance. In 2017, the Minnesota Department of Education put the school on a corrective action plan to bring the special education program into compliance with state and federal standards. Enrollment declined.

When the school board hired Bert Strassburg to lead the school in 2018, it tasked him with a mandate for change. 

“It felt like when I walked in, that things had been stuck for a number of years and that education wasn’t necessarily moving forward,” Strassburg told Sahan Journal this fall. “That’s where I jumped in and was willing to accept that challenge—knowing that whenever you make significant changes, it’s not always popular.” 

Staffing was a major area of change under Strassburg’s leadership. According to records Sahan Journal obtained in a public data request, none of the teachers who worked at the school prior to August 2018 still teach there, after a series of contract non-renewals, terminations, and voluntary departures. Many teaching assistants, some of whom spoke Somali and served as cultural and language liaisons, and other staff have left too. 

“Experienced teachers who are familiar with refugee life have been out for no reason,” Junie Guto Oba, a father of five children at the school, told Sahan Journal this fall. “We don’t know the reason.”

At Thursday’s board meeting, two staff members submitted public comments in support of Strassburg’s leadership, including Sarah Swanson, the school’s social worker, who said she wrote on behalf of 25 others. They extolled Strassburg’s work to turn the school around, and lamented that they would not be able to see the results of those efforts.

But Ayan Jama, a parent who has been advocating to remove the school’s leadership or shut it down, applauded the decision.

“I think the community had enough with them,” Ayan told Sahan Journal. “And as you can listen, the only public comments they have is with two staff members that wrote what they want to hear. And that’s the proof of the relationship they have with the community and the parents.”

The CRCS board voted Thursday night to request an informal hearing with Pillsbury United Communities to appeal the authorizer’s decision. Pillsbury United will make a final determination about the future of the school sometime in May. 

This is a developing story; it has been updated with additional reporting.

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Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...