State tells charter school to avoid perception of religious endorsement

9:54 AM, May 20, 2008   |    comments
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Administrators at the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy said their school was "vindicated" Monday by a Minnesota Department of Education report that found the school's curriculum does not violate state law. However, the same report identified "items of concern" and directed the school "to promptly take appropriate steps to address these issues." Asad Zaman, the director of the Inver Grove Heights charter school also known as "TiZA," said he was very pleased with the report. "It vindicates our position that we have been running a quality charter school," he said. Zaman's headache began in March, when Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten suggested public money was paying for an "Islamic" education at TiZA. The school focuses on African, Asian and Middle Eastern culture, and Arabic is taught as a second language. The school also allows its students, many of whom are Muslim, to lead each other in voluntary prayers. One of the education department's "items of concern" had to do with "Friday Communal Prayer," and the fact that teachers sometimes participate in prayers, which last as long as 30 minutes. Federal law says schools need to accommodate students' religious practices. But the department said the mere fact that teachers are "praying alongside young elementary school students in the school building during the school day may create the impression that the school officially is endorsing religion." Another area of concern identified by the education department is transportation at the end of the school day. There are no school buses in front of the building until 45 minutes after classes end, which coincides with the end of an extracurricular Muslim studies class. Parents pay $50 a month to let their children participate in the after-school class, according to the education department. TiZA says about two-thirds of its students participate in the class. Other students participate in other non-religious after school programs. The school also said parents prefer the later pickup time. Zaman, who said scheduling an earlier pick-up could cost as much as $100,000 because buses are in demand, told KARE 11 he takes the concerns seriously. "I intend to make an appointment, sit down with the Department of Education, and figure out how to solve this," he said. Zaman said the school has received numerous violent threats as a result of media coverage, and there was extra anxiety Monday as a KSTP camera crew walked onto school grounds and began taping. School administrators, including Zaman, confronted the crew and appeared to try to pull a photojournalist's TV camera out of his hands. The school said the crew did not ask for permission to come onto school property and had been told by police to stay across the street. Zaman said the crew did not identify itself. "I did not ask police not to let Channel 5 on the property," Zaman said. "I asked police to tell those unidentified individuals to leave the property." KARE 11 had phoned in advance to request permission to videotape on school grounds and was recording video when the confrontation took place. Inver Grove Heights Police Officer Steve Her confirmed to KARE 11 he told the KSTP crew not to come on the school property before the confrontation happened. KSTP reporter Chris O'Connell said he and his photographer were not told to stay off the school property. The police are now looking into possible trespassing charges against KSTP and possible assault charges against school officials.

By Scott Goldberg, KARE 11 News

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(Copyright 2008 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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