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

Cedar Riverside Community School, one of the nation’s first charter schools, will close permanently on June 30, following years of concerns about academic performance and school board governance.

Pillsbury United Communities, the school’s authorizer—or nonprofit oversight body—sent the official notice of termination to Cedar Riverside Community School’s leadership and the Minnesota Department of Education on Thursday afternoon. It comes after Pillsbury recommended closure of the school in late March. The school appealed its authorizer’s recommendation in a closed “informal hearing” on May 3—but failed to reverse its termination.

“We are deeply disappointed with Pillsbury United Communities’ decision to close our school,” wrote Bert Strassburg, the school’s executive director, in a statement to Sahan Journal. “However, we remain enormously proud of what we’ve built for almost 30 years. Our teachers and staff have been committed to providing an excellent educational experience for our students and families and will continue to do so as they transition into the next chapter of their educational journey.”

Adair Mosley, chief executive officer of Pillsbury United Communities, said in a Friday press release: “The Pillsbury United decision to close CRCS was made with a heavy heart and grounding in what is in the best interests of the students and families of this community. Given the persistent, deep, and systemic gaps that exist for Black and brown students in our state, we must and do take our role as authorizer seriously.”

The school currently serves about 100 students in grades pre-K through 8—primarily Somali children who live in the Riverside Plaza housing development. In recent years, the school has experienced significant staff turnover, declining enrollment, and numerous parent complaints.

Some parents, unhappy with academic and staff changes at Cedar Riverside Community School, launched a petition last June asking for the removal of the board and executive director. Parents representing a majority of the school’s students signed the petition. Parents also filed 20 written complaints about the school with Pillsbury last year. 

Still, parents expressed concern about the school’s possible closure in conversations with Sahan Journal in April. 

Ummi Munye, a parent at Cedar Riverside Community School, said her family liked the school because it was close and convenient. 

“I don’t want it to close,” she said. “I want it open.”

She spoke fondly of her son’s favorite social studies teacher who, like many others, departed the school in recent years. In fact, documents show no teacher at the school has worked there longer than three years, after a series of terminations, resignations, and contract non-renewals.

Ummi’s youngest child, in eighth grade, will be aging into a different school next year, regardless. She suggested with a laugh that Cedar Riverside Community School could become a high school instead.

School displayed ‘significant organizational and cultural deficiencies’ 

In the written notice of termination, Samantha Diaz, director of the office of public charter schools for Pillsbury United Communities, cited “failure to demonstrate satisfactory academic achievement for all students.” This failure, she added, included “significant organizational and cultural deficiencies over the term of the contract and long term dysfunction at the board level.”

The termination letter also cited the comments of school board member Abdirahman Dahir, who spoke at the informal hearing. He “expressed sentiments of deliberate disconnect and marginalization by the board and administration of the community being served,” the letter continued. 

Ultimately, Diaz stated, the school’s “existing board leadership and administration” lacked support from the community in Cedar–Riverside.

As an authorizer, Pillsbury plays a key oversight and accountability role for the 20 charter schools currently in its portfolio. For years, the nonprofit expressed concerns to the school in a series of formal notices, at times requiring the school to correct practices and offering the school technical assistance. While authorizers have little ability to intervene in day-to-day school operations, they hold the ultimate authority to decide whether to close a school when it is not meeting the terms of its contract, or charter.

“After exhausting all possible interventions within our statutory and contractual authority as authorizer, it was determined that there was no other option but to move to close the school,” Diaz said in a statement sent Friday morning.

In addition to concerns about academics, governance, and cultural competency, Pillsbury’s letter laid out a long bill of problems: declining student enrollment, high turnover among staff and board members, inadequate community representation on the board, and a lapse in services to the school’s many English language learners.

Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, said that he’d been aware for years of problems at the school related to academics, governance, and turnover. While he wasn’t familiar with Pillsbury’s specific decision-making process, he noted that Cedar Riverside Community School had struggled with a series of leadership changes after many years of having the same director. Another factor contributing to the school’s troubles, he suggested, could be competition: Since the school first opened its doors, a number of other schools have emerged that serve the same demographic. 

The closure will be disruptive, Pillsbury’s letter acknowledged. But it stressed Pillsbury’s responsibility to see that the schools it authorizes use taxpayer dollars effectively “in the pursuit of positive learning outcomes.”

Diaz said in a statement that Pillsbury United would “provide as many resources as possible to families to ensure parents have the information they will need when deciding where to send their student next school year.” This will include hosting a school resource fair at the Brian Coyle Center.

Some community members expressed hope that a new school would open again someday in Riverside Plaza. But for now, the school will be shutting its doors–and the families it serves will have to find a new school before next fall.

Friday, May 14, 9:46 a.m.: This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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