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By Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune
Posted: April 8, 2008
Here are 20 questions sent in several e-mails by Katherine Kersten to Asad Zaman, executive director of Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy in Inver Grove Heights. Following each question is his answer.
1. You have stated that the Minnesota Department of Education "inspects TIZA regularly" to "ensure ... that we are not a religious school." In addition, a March 2007 article in Minnesota Monthly includes the following paragraph:
"Zaman takes pains to point out that his school ... is not a religious institution. That has been confirmed many times, he says -- state education officials inspected the academy 11 times during its first year. 'They really wanted to make sure,' Zaman says, smiling."
Please list dates of inspections that focused on ensuring that TIZA is not a religious school.
In what form were findings regarding these inspections documented to you? Please identify and quote all such findings.
Please list the dates of the inspections referred to in the Minnesota Monthly article.
A. Different divisions of the MDE have inspected TIZA numerous times and we have not been informed of any violations of encouraging or supporting religious activity. A complete record of dates & findings should be available from the MDE.
2. Do teachers take students in any grades to the bathroom to perform ablutions for afternoon prayers? Do teachers then take students in any grades to the prayer space?
A. MN Law requires public schools to supervise students at all times during the school day, including use of restrooms and periods where students exercise their constitutional right to pray. TIZA complies with this law.
3. Are students designated to lead prayer? Is some form of rotation used to designate prayer leaders? Who leads prayer among students in grades K-1? What percentage of students participates in prayer?
A. Since prayer is not mandated by TIZA, the school does not designate prayer leaders, nor do we monitor or keep statistics of students (including KG & 1st grade) who might pray.
4. Where are teachers during prayer time? Do they continue to observe students in any grade during prayer?
A. MN Law requires public schools to supervise students at all times during the school day, including periods where students exercise their constitutional right to pray. TIZA complies with this law. Supervision to maintain student safety is very different from teacher lead and encouragement of prayer.
5. Where and when do Muslim teachers perform Dhuhr prayers?
A. Staff of all religions are free to pray in the staff lounge, their offices and other private areas during their break time.
6. According to the ACLU of Minnesota, TIZA's web site recently included a request for volunteers to assist with "Friday prayers." Please describe the service these volunteers perform or performed.
A. That particular statement was placed with the intent to ensure that no TIZA staff members were involved in organizing the Friday prayers. Once the ACLU brought to our attention that this may have represented an appearance of impropriety, we immediately removed it although we have not been informed that there has been any legal violation of the law and we believe that we are not in any legal violation of the law.
7. On Friday afternoons, does an all-school assembly including prayer take place at the school? At what time does this typically occur? What percentage of students generally participates in this prayer service?
A. TIZA does NOT typically organize school assemblies on Friday. Students are released on Friday afternoons to either join a parent-led service or for study hall. Many students utilize both options, but we do not maintain such statistics.
8. Who is the gentleman who dresses in white and sometimes leads or participates in prayer at the assembly?
A. Many people dress in white. We do not track the garment colors of staff or visitors.
9. What besides prayer takes place during the Friday all-school assembly? Who speaks to students during that time? Is the topic at times religious in nature?
A. TIZA school assemblies are NOT for prayer, as your question implies. While TIZA school assemblies can occur on any day; they do NOT typically occur on Friday.
10. What entity conducts after-school religious instruction? Please identify the leaders or teachers in the after-school religious studies program and describe the nature of the program or programs.
A. The Muslim American Society of Minnesota is responsible for the program in question. I am not at liberty to provide a list of their staff members.
11. Who are the current members of TIZA's board? Who is the board chair? Are all board members Muslim? Please identify those who are not.
A. The current board members of TIZA are: Asad (Chair), Moira, Mohammed, Mahrous & Mona. To the best of my knowledge, at least one board member is Christian. I am not at liberty to disclose the religious affiliation of individual board members.
12. Do Muslim teachers attend the Friday all-school assembly? Do non-Muslim teachers attend it?
A. TIZA school assemblies are NOT for prayer, as your question implies. While TIZA school assemblies can occur on any day; they do NOT typically occur on Friday. TIZA Staff like all employees in MN are at liberty to exercise their constitutional right to pray. Some of them probably exercise that right, others choose not to.
13. Please list all after-school extra-curricular activities available at TIZA, including the names of the leaders or teachers of such activities.
A. TIZA currently offers three after school programs. The afore-mentioned programs are "non-sectarian" in nature in regards to the programming provided by TIZA. I believe that Human Resources information about individual TIZA employees is confidential. In addition, based on student demand the Boys Scouts, MASMN & the Girls Scouts currently offer optional after school programs to TIZA students. No TIZA funds are expended for programs run by other organizations.
14. Are after-school activities required at TIZA? What percentage of students participate in after-school activities? What do students who stay at school but do not participate in after-school activities do until buses come? How are these students supervised?
A. Answers to your multi-part question are provided below.
a. No. After school programs are not required. They are all optional.
b. It is difficult to determine the percentage of student participation because some students do not participate in any program while other students participate in more than one program.
c. At the end of school hours, students are free to leave at any time. Students who choose to stay have one or more free non-sectarian program options to choose from. Bus transportation is provided at 4:15. Based on our budgetary constraints, this was the earliest time we could negotiate with the bus vendor. This time was also recommended to us through a vote of a majority of parents.
d. Students are at TIZA are supervised according to the Responsive Classroom methodology.
15. Is bus transportation provided for students who wish to leave at the end of the regular school day? If not, how do such students get home?
A. At the end of school hours, students are free to leave at any time. Students who choose to stay have one or more free non-sectarian program options to choose from. Bus transportation is provided at 4:15. Based on our budgetary constraints, this was the earliest time we could negotiate with the bus vendor. This time was also recommended to us through a vote of a majority of parents.
16. Please provide by fax any letter/communication distributed to parents to inform them about after-school activities available at TIZA, along with the form/s that parents use to sign up their children for after-school activities, including religious instruction.
A. You have already submitted a Government Data Practices Act request. You are welcome to include this data in your request.
17. Please list after-school activities for which students are required to pay.
A. All of the optional after school programs currently offered by TIZA are free. The optional programs offered by the Boys Scouts, MASMN & the Girls Scouts are not free. No TIZA funds are expended for programs run by other organizations.
18. What percentage of the students at TIZA are Muslim?
A. As a public school, we do not ask about the religious affiliation of our students.
19. What is the size of TIZA's student body?
A. Approximately 410
20. Do you typically attend the Friday "parent-led" service you mention in your answer to question 7, or have you attended the service in the past? How many times did you attend the parent-led service in March 2008?
A. It is NOT my practice to attend the Friday "parent-led" mid-day service at the school. I have NOT attended any Friday "parent-led" mid-day service in March 2008.
During his e-mail correspondence with Katherine Kersten, Asad Zaman included this information about Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy:
FOR THE RECORD:
- Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy operates a non sectarian public school program and offers services to all students without regard to their race, creed, ethnic origin, gender or disability status.
- As public servants administering public schools we strive to maintain the non sectarian nature of our programs as mandated by state law, while also fully upholding the federal rights of students to practice the religion of their choice described under Section 9524 of the ESEA. We are fully committed to performing our duties under both sets of statutes.
- We have been visited & inspected numerous times by various divisions of the MN Department of Education. We are in full compliance with the law.
- In the past, we have also been visited by MN legislators, Lt. Governor Molnau, Commissioner Seagren and the Mayor of Inver Grove Heights.
By Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune
Posted April 9, 2008
Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA) -- named for the Muslim general who conquered medieval Spain -- is a K-8 charter school in Inver Grove Heights. Its approximately 300 students are mostly the children of low-income Muslim immigrant families, many of them Somalis.
The school is in huge demand, with a waiting list of 1,500. Last fall, it opened a second campus in Blaine.
TIZA uses the language of culture rather than religion to describe its program in public documents. According to its mission statement, the school "recognizes and appreciates the traditions, histories, civilizations and accomplishments of the eastern world (Africa, Asia and Middle East)."
But the line between religion and culture is often blurry. There are strong indications that religion plays a central role at TIZA, which is a public school financed by Minnesota taxpayers. Under the U.S. and state constitutions, a public school can accommodate students' religious beliefs but cannot encourage or endorse religion.
TIZA raises troubling issues about taxpayer funding of schools that cross that line.
Asad Zaman, TIZA's principal, declined to allow me to visit the school or grant me an interview. He did not respond to e-mails seeking written replies.
TIZA's strong religious connections date from its founding in 2003. Its co-founders, Zaman and Hesham Hussein, were both imams, or Muslim religious leaders, as well as leaders of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota (MAS-MN).
Since then, they have played dual roles: Zaman as TIZA's principal and the current vice-president of MAS-MN, and Hussein as TIZA's school board chair and president of MAS-MN until his death in a car accident in Saudi Arabia in January.
TIZA shares MAS-MN's headquarters building, along with a mosque.
MAS-MN came to Minnesotans' attention in 2006, when it issued a "fatwa," warning Muslim taxi drivers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport that transporting passengers with alcohol in their baggage is a violation of Islamic law.
Journalists whom Zaman has permitted to visit TIZA have described the school's Islamic atmosphere and practices.
"A visitor might well mistake Tarek ibn Ziyad for an Islamic school," reported Minnesota Monthly in 2007. "Head scarves are voluntary, but virtually all the girls wear them." The school has a central carpeted prayer space, and "vaguely religious-sounding language" is used.
According to the Pioneer Press, TIZA's student body prays daily and the school's cafeteria serves halal food (permissible under Islamic law). During Ramadan, all students fast from dawn to dusk, according to a parent quoted in the article.
In fact, TIZA was originally envisioned as a private Islamic school. In 2001, MAS-MN negotiated to buy the current TIZA/MAS-MN building for Al-Amal School, a private religious institution in Fridley, according to Bruce Rimstad of the Inver Grove Heights School District. But many immigrant families can't afford Al-Amal. In 2002, Islamic Relief -- headquartered in California -- agreed to sponsor a publicly funded charter school, TIZA, at the same location.
TIZA claims to be non-sectarian, as Minnesota law requires charters to be. But "after-school Islamic learning" takes place on weekdays in the same building under MAS-MN's auspices, according to the program for MAS-MN's 2007 convention. At that convention, a TIZA representative at the school's booth told me that students go directly to "Islamic studies" classes at 3:30, when TIZA's day ends. There, they learn "Qur'anic recitation, the Sunnah of the Prophet" and other religious subjects, he said.
TIZA's 2006 Contract Performance Review Report states that students engage in unspecified "electives" after school or do homework.
Publicly, TIZA emphasizes that it uses standard curricular materials like those found in other public schools. But when addressing Muslim audiences, school officials make the link to Islam clear. At MAS-MN's 2007 convention, for example, the program featured an advertisement for the "Muslim American Society of Minnesota," superimposed on a picture of a mosque. Under the motto "Establishing Islam in Minnesota," it asked: "Did you know that MAS-MN ... houses a full-time elementary school"? On the adjacent page was an application for TIZA.
In addition to the issues raised by TIZA's religious elements, there are reasons to be concerned about the organizations with which it is connected.
Group linked to Hamas
Islamic Relief-USA, the school's sponsor, is compared to the Red Cross in several TIZA documents. In 2006, however, the Israeli government announced that Islamic Relief Worldwide, the organization's parent group, "provides support and assistance" to Hamas, designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist group.
Meanwhile, MAS-MN offers on its web site "beneficial and enlightening information" about Islam, which includes statements like "Regularly make the intention to go on jihad with the ambition to die as a martyr."
At its 2007 convention, MAS-MN featured the notorious Shayk Khalid Yasin, who is well-known in Britain and Australia for teaching that husbands can beat disobedient wives, that gays should be executed and that the United States spreads the AIDS virus in Africa through vaccines for tropical diseases.
Yasin's topic? "Building a Successful Muslim Community in Minnesota."
TIZA has improved the reading and math performance of its mostly low-income students. That's commendable, but should Minnesota taxpayers be funding an Islamic public school?
By Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune
Posted April 10, 2008
Recently, I wrote about Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA), a K-8 charter school in Inver Grove Heights. Charter schools are public schools and by law must not endorse or promote religion.
Evidence suggests, however, that TIZA is an Islamic school, funded by Minnesota taxpayers.
TIZA has many characteristics that suggest a religious school. It shares the headquarters building of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, whose mission is "establishing Islam in Minnesota." The building also houses a mosque. TIZA's executive director, Asad Zaman, is a Muslim imam, or religious leader, and its sponsor is an organization called Islamic Relief.
Students pray daily, the cafeteria serves halal food - permissible under Islamic law -- and "Islamic Studies" is offered at the end of the school day.
Zaman maintains that TIZA is not a religious school. He declined, however, to allow me to visit the school to see for myself, "due to the hectic schedule for statewide testing." But after I e-mailed him that the Minnesota Department of Education had told me that testing would not begin for several weeks, Zaman did not respond -- even to urgent calls and e-mails seeking comment before my first column on TIZA.
Now, however, an eyewitness has stepped forward. Amanda Getz of Bloomington is a substitute teacher. She worked as a substitute in two fifth-grade classrooms at TIZA on Friday, March 14. Her experience suggests that school-sponsored religious activity plays an integral role at TIZA.
Arriving on a Friday, the Muslim holy day, she says she was told that the day's schedule included a "school assembly" in the gym after lunch.
Before the assembly, she says she was told, her duties would include taking her fifth-grade students to the bathroom, four at a time, to perform "their ritual washing."
Afterward, Getz said, "teachers led the kids into the gym, where a man dressed in white with a white cap, who had been at the school all day," was preparing to lead prayer. Beside him, another man "was prostrating himself in prayer on a carpet as the students entered."
"The prayer I saw was not voluntary," Getz said. "The kids were corralled by adults and required to go to the assembly where prayer occurred."
Islamic Studies was also incorporated into the school day. "When I arrived, I was told 'after school we have Islamic Studies,' and I might have to stay for hall duty," Getz said. "The teachers had written assignments on the blackboard for classes like math and social studies. Islamic Studies was the last one -- the board said the kids were studying the Qu'ran. The students were told to copy it into their planner, along with everything else. That gave me the impression that Islamic Studies was a subject like any other."
After school, Getz's fifth-graders stayed in their classroom and the man in white who had led prayer in the gym came in to teach Islamic Studies. TIZA has in effect extended the school day -- buses leave only after Islamic Studies is over. Getz did not see evidence of other extra-curricular activity, except for a group of small children playing outside. Significantly, 77 percent of TIZA parents say that their "main reason for choosing TIZA ... was because of after-school programs conducted by various non-profit organizations at the end of the school period in the school building," according to a TIZA report. TIZA may be the only school in Minnesota with this distinction.
Why does the Minnesota Department of Education allow this sort of religious activity at a public school? According to Zaman, the department inspects TIZA regularly -- and has done so "numerous times" -- to ensure that it is not a religious school.
But the department's records document only three site visits to TIZA in five years -- two in 2003-04 and one in 2007, according to Assistant Commissioner Morgan Brown. None of the visits focused specifically on religious practices.
The department is set up to operate on a "complaint basis," and "since 2004, we haven't gotten a single complaint about TIZA," Brown said. In 2004, he sent two letters to the school inquiring about religious activity reported by visiting department staffers and in a news article. Brown was satisfied with Zaman's assurance that prayer is "voluntary" and "student-led," he said. The department did not attempt to confirm this independently, and did not ask how 5- to 11-year-olds could be initiating prayer. (At the time, TIZA was a K-5 school.)
Zaman agreed to respond by e-mail to concerns raised about the school's practices. Student "prayer is not mandated by TIZA," he wrote, and so is legal. On Friday afternoons, "students are released ... to either join a parent-led service or for study hall." Islamic Studies is provided by the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, and other "nonsectarian" after-school options are available, he added.
Yet prayer at TIZA does not appear to be spontaneously initiated by students, but rather scheduled, organized and promoted by school authorities.
Request for volunteers
Until recently, TIZA's website included a request for volunteers to help with "Friday prayers." In an e-mail, Zaman explained this as an attempt to ensure that "no TIZA staff members were involved in organizing the Friday prayers."
But an end run of this kind cannot remove the fact of school sponsorship of prayer services, which take place in the school building during school hours. Zaman does not deny that "some" Muslim teachers "probably" attend. According to federal guidelines on prayer in schools, teachers at a public school cannot participate in prayer with students.
In addition, schools cannot favor one religion by offering services for only its adherents, or promote after-school religious instruction for only one group. The ACLU of Minnesota has launched an investigation of TIZA, and the Minnesota Department of Education has also begun a review.
TIZA's operation as a public, taxpayer-funded school is troubling on several fronts. TIZA is skirting the law by operating what is essentially an Islamic school at taxpayer expense. The Department of Education has failed to provide the oversight necessary to catch these illegalities, and appears to lack the tools to do so. In addition, there's a double standard at work here -- if TIZA were a Christian school, it would likely be gone in a heartbeat.
TIZA is now being held up as a national model for a new kind of charter school. If it passes legal muster, Minnesota taxpayers may soon find themselves footing the bill for a separate system of education for Muslims.