Unless Cedar Riverside Community School wins an appeal, it will close as soon as next month. The informal hearing on May 3 to determine the school's fate was closed to the public. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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In a closed and unpublicized meeting on Monday, May 3, a longtime Cedar Riverside charter school made a final appeal to continue operating next year. If the school does not win its appeal, it could close permanently as soon as next month. 

Cedar Riverside Community School, which largely serves Somali families in Minneapolis, has struggled with low test scores, falling enrollment, huge staff turnover, and parental complaints. In late March, Pillsbury United Communities, the school’s “authorizer”—or oversight organization—announced its intention to close the school at the end of the year  

Because the “informal hearing” was not subject to Minnesota open meetings laws, the final appeal on the fate of Cedar Riverside Community School took place without any observation or participation from parents, city political leaders, or the press. 

Pillsbury United Communities, which hosted the hearing, denied Sahan Journal’s request to observe the scheduled Zoom meeting. Parents at the school got no public notice that this hearing would determine where their children attend school next fall.

In conversations with Sahan Journal last month, several parents said they were unaware Cedar Riverside Community School might be closing at the end of the year. They had not heard of Pillsbury’s announcement that it planned to close the school. In the absence of clear information, they asked Sahan Journal where they should plan on sending their kids next year.

“It’s like our community,” said Cedar Riverside parent Suleiman Abdallah. Because the school is so close to his home, it’s convenient to pick kids up and drop them off, he said. “They don’t want to go back to a new school, new teacher, new classmates.”

Pillsbury United Communities told Sahan Journal its request to attend and report on the hearing was “respectfully declined.”

Pillsbury, in many ways, performs a governmental role: It exercises oversight over 20 current charter schools in Minnesota, attended by some 11,000 students. But because Pillsbury is not a government body, its board meetings are not subject to open meeting laws. (By contrast, if Minneapolis Public Schools planned to close a school, the school board would vote on it during an open meeting, after public discussion.)

Cedar Riverside Community School did its part to keep parents away from the hearing process. A few days earlier, in an open school board meeting, the school’s lawyer, Kristin Nierengarten,  explained that Pillsbury cannot override the open meeting laws that govern the public charter school.

If the school brought a quorum–that is, a majority–of board members to the hearing to discuss official school business, the hearing would have to be advertised and opened to the public, including parents and press.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily in the school’s best interest for it to be open, just because we want to make sure it doesn’t get kind of out of control,” Nierengarten said in the school board planning session. “Those types of things can kind of snowball.”

Nierengarten did not respond to an interview request from Sahan Journal about the Pillsbury appeal process.

In response to an interview request, Bert Strassburg, the school’s executive director, sent an emailed statement that did not include details on the hearing. “We are hopeful that Pillsbury United Communities will reconsider its intent to close the school and will instead choose to partner with us to continue offering an excellent educational experience for our students and families,” he said.

Representative Cedrick Frazier (D–New Hope) said he’d long harbored concerns about transparency in some charter schools.

“Any time you’ve got public dollars and you’re serving the public, and our community members don’t have access to know what you’re doing, I think that’s problematic,” he said. 

Because charter school boards aren’t elected by the community, they aren’t always responsive to the community or transparent, he said. (Frazier also works as a lawyer for Education Minnesota, the state’s largest educators union.)

“They’re considered public schools based on our law,” he said. “They should be open, and they should be accessible to the community, and we should know what’s going on.”

Asking for a divorce

Neither Pillsbury nor Cedar Riverside Community School released any account of the hearing. But a heated school board discussion days earlier previewed serious disagreements among board members about whether and where the school had gone wrong. During this April 29 meeting—which was public—the school board, the school’s executive director, and a lawyer debated how best to plead their case for the school to return next year. 

After learning that Pillsbury planned to close the school, Cedar Riverside Community School prepared a 28-page letter detailing grievances in the school’s relationship with its authorizer. The letter, and the informal hearing before Pillsbury’s board, would be the last chance to save the school.

Yet in the run-up to the hearing, some school board members expressed doubts about this legalistic approach. Abdirahman Dahir, a 24-year-old Cedar Riverside resident who joined the board in January, described the letter’s tone as “hostile.”

“I feel like we’re here kind of begging for mercy if I’m being honest, because our authorizer does have the final say in the existence of the school,” Abrirahman said during the April school board meeting. “I don’t think the tone is going to do anything but really sow more discord.”

The school’s essential request? To stay open. In its letter to Pillsbury, the board asked for a one-year extension of its contract—or charter—and then a release from its relationship with Pillsbury. Over the past three years, Pillsbury recorded voluminous complaints and concerns about the school’s governance, operations, and academics.

‘The process of the Cedar Riverside Community School non-renewal remains ongoing’

Pillsbury United Communities has until June 2 to announce its final decision on whether it will “non-renew” the school’s charter. To date, Pillsbury has declined Sahan Journal’s requests to discuss that process—and how parents should plan for the future.

Samantha Diaz, director of the Office of Public Charter Schools for Pillsbury United Communities, wrote in an email to Sahan Journal that it would be premature to comment on the hearing. 

“The process of the Cedar Riverside Community School non-renewal remains ongoing until the Pillsbury United board makes its final determination and CRCS is notified of the Pillsbury United board’s decision,” Diaz said.

Cedar Riverside Community School, one of the oldest charter schools in the country, is located inside Minneapolis’ Riverside Plaza and primarily serves Somali families who live in the Plaza. The school currently has about 100 students from pre-kindergarten through 8th grade.

Earlier in its history, the Star Tribune hailed Cedar Riverside as a “Beat the Odds” school, for achieving better math scores than any other high-poverty school in the state. But the school has seen its academic performance and enrollment decline over the past decade amid a series of leadership changes. 

As the school’s authorizer, Pillsbury is responsible for oversight and accountability. The authorizer notified Cedar Riverside Community School leadership in late March of its intent to close the school, after years of registering concerns about board governance, staffing, enrollment, parent engagement, academics, and cultural competency.

In the draft of their rebuttal letter, school officials claimed the authorizer relationship was fraught from the start. They pointed to Pillsbury’s own troubles: The authorizer faces possible corrective action from the state after a poor performance review. (The Minnesota Department of Education said Friday that corrective action has been stayed, pending a revised performance report.)

The school listed meetings with Pillsbury that had been shorter than their scheduled time, poor communication about deadlines, and inconsistent standards. The appeal explained that the school’s improvement plan had been interrupted by the pandemic, limiting the chance to make it work.

But in a school board meeting the week before the closed hearing, some newer board members expressed doubts about this approach to an appeal.

Chuck Richards, a teacher board member who also joined in January, suggested the school accept more responsibility in its response.

“I feel like I’ve been rewarded in my professional life for taking accountability for what I could have controlled and didn’t,” he said. “I have to admit when I should have acted differently. It is a show of good faith in all of those relationships.”

Janet Youngers, the board chair, said these accountability pieces lay in the school’s continuous improvement plan–including commitments to increased cultural competency and a plan for English language learning.

The Cedar Riverside Community School board comprises a mix of teachers, parents, and community members. But despite a recent election that put more Somali parents and community members on the board, most of the board members who typically attend meetings are white.

New leadership and a new board? 

Abdirahman Dahir joined the board in hopes of serving the Cedar Riverside community. He describes himself as the only Somali board member who regularly attends meetings. To him, the school’s request to its authorizer felt unrealistic–and didn’t go far enough to address structural problems at the school.

“Since I’m the only person consistently showing up, I feel like it’s my job to hold people accountable for the things I think are going to affect my community,” he told Sahan Journal in an interview. He wasn’t authorized to speak on the school’s behalf, but shared his own perspective.

As a lifelong resident of the Cedar–Riverside neighborhood, Abdirahman said he’s heard rumblings of discontent about the school for years. 

The school has experienced significant staff turnover in the past three years. None of the teachers who worked at the school prior to August 2018 still work there, according to documents Sahan Journal obtained in a public records request.

The school feels isolated from the community, Abdirahman said. Instead of seeing teachers and staff at Eid celebrations or other community events, he sees them only coming in and out of the parking garage.

“I think a general piece of advice for any non-POC person working in a position of power but serving people of color, it’s imperative that they go out there and they put the time into communicating with people. Learning how to be culturally competent,” he said.

Abdirahman said he’s heard mixed views from Cedar Riverside parents. Yet they largely agree that they want the school to stay open, he said. 

From conversations with parents and community members, however, Abdirahman has concluded keeping the school open would demand a very different path.

“If I could wave a magic wand, it would look like a new administration,” he said. “And that new administration would only come about through a collaboration through community leaders, community members, parents, and the board. And then after that I think we’d have to clean the slate and have everybody on the board resign.”

‘We took a school that was essentially failing and we are turning it around’

That’s a sharp distinction from the official board position—that the school should have the opportunity to continue its improvement plan with the same leadership, and change its authorizer relationship.

Bert Strassburg, the school’s executive director, told Sahan Journal via email last month that Pillsbury’s preliminary decision to close the school ignored “significant strides” over the past few years.

“We took a school that was essentially failing and we are turning it around, but that doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.

He also claimed that Pillsbury had been “disengaged” and had “not been a collaborative partner” with the school. “That being the case, it is extremely disappointing that they are making this recommendation when they’ve largely been absent from what’s been happening at the school over the past five years.”

He expressed hope and confidence that Pillsbury would reconsider.

“When our case is made, we believe it will be obvious that significant progress has been achieved and that closing the school would be a detriment to our students and their families, as well as the Cedar Riverside community,” he said. “We are determined not to let that happen.”

Pillsbury will announce its final decision as soon as next week.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.