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Even before Cedar Riverside Community School announced it would permanently close at the end of June, Ali Ali’s sixth grade son had transferred out. He wasn’t learning there, Ali told me. And he often felt upset when he came home from school.
“When he’s distressed, we are distressed, too,” said Ali, a 50-year-old airport taxi driver.
Ali’s first-grade daughter, Maryam, remained enrolled at Cedar Riverside Community School, a charter school in Minneapolis’ Riverside Plaza. Next year for second grade, she will join her brother at a different charter school: Twin Cities International School, in Minneapolis’ North Loop.
Unless, Ali said, a new school opens in the same space—and it provides a high quality education.
“If they open in Cedar another school, and it’s a good school, she will go to Cedar,” he said. “But any school we will not trust unless we see, unless everybody says this is working very well.”
Since I started reporting on Cedar Riverside Community School last summer, I’ve spoken to more than a dozen parents with complaints like Ali’s. Parents appreciated how close and convenient the school was. Some remained satisfied with the education. But others noticed a decline in the education quality. Dozens took their children out of the school, fueling a precipitous enrollment drop.
And at the new schools, some found their children now scored below grade level. It was painful for refugee parents, who came to the United States hoping for a better future for their children, to see their students falling behind.
Still, many parents felt saddened by the school’s closing. For decades, it was a community hub for Riverside Plaza families. The convenience of a school located inside the apartment complex benefited parents with challenging work hours or limited access to transportation. Many told me they hoped a new school would open to take its place.
But creating and opening a new school doesn’t happen overnight. At this point, the soonest a new charter school could open would be the fall of 2023, according to Paula Higgins, the charter center supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Education.
However, she cautioned, anyone looking to replace a failed school would need to prove that a demand exists for a new school—and explain how they plan to avoid the previous school’s pitfalls.
“Really dive in and find out what happened,” she said. “Figure out, how do you move forward from that?”
So, what would it take to successfully open a new school serving Cedar–Riverside kids?
In its decision to close the school, Pillsbury United Communities, the school’s authorizer—or nonprofit oversight body—cited academic, operational, and governance concerns.
But together, parents and community members say, these problems added up to a growing divide between the predominantly white school leadership and the largely East African community it served. This disconnect represented a sharp turn away from what had once been the secret to the school’s success: high levels of parent involvement.
The treatment of parents, as well as concerns about the quality of education, drove Seid Mohamed and many other parents to remove their children from the school. “Parents were not valued,” Seid told Sahan Journal. “Our concerns were not taken seriously.”
As the Cedar–Riverside community begins to think about next steps for the neighborhood’s educational future, we looked back at what parents and community leaders told us about Cedar Riverside Community School over nearly a year of reporting. For a new school to open, these are the concerns planners will need to address.
What parents want: academic success, culturally competent staff, and a voice
The primary complaint about the school, parents told me over and over, was its low quality of education. That’s one of the main problems Pillsbury cited, too: poor academic performance and a lack of a clear educational plan.
It wasn’t always that way. In 2010, Cedar Riverside Community School notched higher math scores than any school in the metro area with a high percentage of children living in poverty. The director at the time told the Star Tribune that the school’s secret was high levels of parent involvement.
Over the decade, the school entered a period of decline. Test scores fell. The school saw several changes in executive director, the charter school position that serves as both principal and superintendent. In April 2018, the position became suddenly vacant after an abrupt resignation.
When Bert Strassburg applied for the job, he seemed to have the experience the board was looking for. He’d previously served as interim director of the charter school Woodbury Leadership Academy. Before that, he held a superintendent post in Onamia Public Schools; he left that position with a payout agreement in which he agreed to drop legal claims against the district.
Upon hiring Strassburg, the board 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 said in a September interview with Sahan Journal. “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.”
Since that interview, Strassburg has declined Sahan Journal’s interview requests, instead answering questions via email. Through a public relations consultant, Strassburg declined to answer questions for this story. We have included his responses in this story from his September interview.
One of the most visible changes to the school was its staffing shakeup. Records show all of the teachers who worked at the school prior to August 2018 left by July 2020 in a series of terminations, contract non-renewals, and voluntary departures. Pillsbury noted in its letter of intent to terminate the school’s charter contract that at least 40 percent of staff had left each of the last three years.
“We have had turnover, but that’s going to be expected in any situation where you’re going through such an enormous change,” Strassburg said. Some of the staffing changes, Strassburg noted, came at the urging of parents.
But parents told Sahan Journal that many of the staff who left demonstrated a familiarity with refugee life, and the teachers who replaced them were less experienced.
Mohamed Ali, whose children just completed first and seventh grades, removed his children from Cedar Riverside Community School last summer. Even before the coronavirus sent the school into remote learning, his kids had been struggling all year.
His daughter, then in kindergarten, hadn’t learned any reading or writing, Mohamed said. That hadn’t been a problem back when his older son attended kindergarten at Cedar Riverside Community School. His son was then in sixth grade—and the high turnover of math teachers set back his son’s learning, he said.
During the 2019-2020 school year, the school struggled to retain a middle school math teacher. Mohamed said three math instructors came and went by the winter months, and that sometimes there was no math teacher at all.
Then came distance learning—without technology access. As schools across the state transitioned to remote learning in March 2020, Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts distributed laptops or iPads to students. But Cedar Riverside students received binders of worksheets. Data from the Minnesota Department of Education shows that in mid-May of 2020, Cedar Riverside Community School students’ rates of access to computers and internet were among the lowest in the state.
Strassburg told Sahan Journal the school chose last spring’s distance learning model both because it didn’t have enough computers for all students and because not all families were equally comfortable using the technology. The school’s plan was equitable, he said. During the summer of 2020, the school acquired tablets and Chromebooks for students in preparation for distance learning in the fall. But for some families it was too late.
Mohamed took his son to a private tutor that summer, and learned that he was far behind grade level. He made the difficult decision to remove his children from the school. At least four families of seventh graders transferred their kids out the same year, he said.
Strassburg told Sahan Journal that on some measures, the school outperformed Minneapolis Public Schools. Indeed, data show that among students who were Black or qualified for free or reduced price lunch, those at Cedar Riverside Community School registered higher reading scores than Minneapolis Public Schools students.
But many parents didn’t see it that way. Between October 2019 and October 2020, Cedar Riverside Community School saw a 26 percent drop in enrollment. Minneapolis Public Schools, by contrast, lost 5 percent of its students during that time. And the enrollment decline didn’t start with the pandemic—the charter school’s student body fell from 185 students to 111 between 2017 and 2020, according to state data.
“We live here,” Mohamed said. “We prefer to stay here. But the school is not taking seriously our education.”
‘No checks and balances’
Last summer, parents representing a majority of the school’s students signed a petition asking for a new executive director and a new school board.
Abdirahman Dahir, 24, a lifelong Cedar–Riverside resident, won a community member seat in December’s school board election. It was the board’s first election in more than two years. He hoped to use the position as an opportunity to give back to the neighborhood where he grew up.
But right away, he felt that the board—mostly teachers, with a handful of parents and community members—was an insiders’ club that he didn’t belong to.
“This school is run like the mafia,” he said. “The only thing that wasn’t a secret was that there was no transparency.”
When Abdirahman joined the board, he felt like important decisions had already been made before they were presented for him to vote on.
“I felt personally like the administration was a little too involved in what the board did,” Abdirahman said. “I felt like there was no separation of power, no checks and balances. I was just there to sit there and nod.”
Between elections, vacancies were filled by appointment—meaning the remaining board members could choose someone to join them on the board.
“They choose the people that always agree with them,” said Mustafa Diriye, a parent advocate, now organizing with the Minnesota Parent Union, who has been working with Cedar Riverside Community School parents since 2015. “And that’s part of the disaster.”
Plenty of board vacancies arose over those two years. When 10 teachers departed the school in June 2019, it led directly to high board turnover: Three of the teachers who left also served on the seven-member school board. Two of those left because Strassburg didn’t renew their contracts. Some parents complained this was a conflict of interest: Strassburg had the ability to fire board members who questioned his leadership; he could also decline to renew their contracts, which had the same effect.
Parent board member seats saw high turnover, too. And the “community member” seat, for two years, belonged not to an East African neighborhood resident but to a white former teacher.
Abdirahman had no intention of serving as a yes-man. On May 3, he attended the informal hearing Pillsbury held for the school’s closure appeal. Instead of sticking to the board talking points, requesting another year for the school to prove its case, he detailed the disconnect between the school administration and the community.
The only way for the school to remain open, he said, would be with a new board and executive director.
His comments, Pillsbury’s final decision letter noted, reinforced the complaints the authorizer had been receiving from Cedar–Riverside parents for years.
‘A sense of community ownership’
Many parents and community members expressed hope that a new school could replace Cedar Riverside Community School. But they stressed that neighborhood residents’ vision and leadership would need to shape that school—what state Representative Mohamud Noor called “a sense of community ownership.”
Mohamud said he planned to convene a community meeting on Zoom to discuss next steps. He hopes to channel into the neighborhood some of the $75 million Governor Tim Walz set aside for summer learning. And he wants to start planning for the future of education in Cedar–Riverside. Perhaps the space could become a full-service community school, which would provide health care and other services to students, he mused.
“Pillsbury could decide to bring another charter school there,” he said. “The key point is, will the community allow that?”
Paula Higgins, from the Minnesota Department of Education, laid out the steps to forming a new charter school. Community members would need to develop a clear plan for the school they wanted—for example, a specialty in arts or the environment, serving elementary or high school students—and demonstrate demand. A licensed teacher would need to be part of the application process. And they would need to find an authorizer to work with—whether Pillsbury or a different institution.
Mustafa Diriye, the parent advocate, said Pillsbury bore the largest share of blame for the school’s failure, and that he would not support another Pillsbury school there.
“Any school that comes there, they would have to know they would be held accountable every single day,” he said. “They have to perform there beyond average. There’s no more average. We will never accept average.”
As the school’s authorizer, Pillsbury had little ability to intervene in day-to-day school operations beyond monitoring compliance with state law and the terms of the charter contract. Over the course of the five-year contract, Pillsbury sent the school repeated notices of items that needed correction, including requiring an outside investigation of parent complaints. (That investigation has not concluded, and likely will never produce a final report as the school is closing.)
“To be clear, we exhausted all possible interventions within our statutory and contractual authority as authorizer, and made the decision that was in the best interests of the students and families of the Cedar Riverside Community School,” responded Samantha Diaz, Pillsbury’s director of the office of public charter schools, in an email to Sahan Journal. “In addition to the numerous interventions we triggered in hopes the school would improve academically, we offered targeted technical assistance, which the school’s leadership and board declined.”
She continued, “Moreover, over the course of the contract term, we also held the school accountable to various complaints from parents, community, and staff and issues identified by authorizing staff. We held numerous conversations with various stakeholders, including holding a listening session with parents. Therefore, any interested member of the community who was seriously concerned about the challenges we saw had the opportunity to and did engage with us as the authorizer.”
But to Mustafa, the parent advocate, those steps did not go far enough. Pillsbury should have made it clearer consequences were coming if the school did not make changes, he said.
“When you see two, three years your school has no growth”—either academically or in enrollment—“there is something wrong,” he said. “You have to interfere. You have to say, what is going on? You have to change the system.”
Ultimately, what happens to the school site will be up to the landlord, said Abdirahman, the school board member; it could well become a fitness center.
(Valerie Doleman, senior vice president for Sherman Associates, the school’s landlord, told Sahan Journal via email that the company hopes to find a new tenant for the space soon. “Although we have no limitations on usage for the space in the future, we do seek commercial tenants that enhance the neighborhoods within our residential communities,” she said.)
Abdirahman is supportive of efforts to bring a school back to the plaza, as long as the community is involved. But he cautions anyone who would try to open a new school to learn from the mistakes of the past. To Abdirahman, that means an emphasis on transparency and cultivating relationships.
“Once the trust withers away,” he said, “I feel like there’s no coming back from that.”
Aala Abdullahi contributed reporting.