License, Please

A tiny St. Paul high school throws off the shackles of state regulation--including those cumbersome rules about teacher certification

Jeff Holte, Minnesota Technology's lead teacher and a member of its board of directors, says he knows of the state investigation but doesn't consider it a problem for the school. "We work on those," he says of the IEP records. "We work like heck to keep everything up to date in our school." As for the complaints about licensing, Holte says he isn't worried: "I've worked with hundreds of teachers in my life," he maintains, "and I've never been more proud than I have of the people I work with now, licensed or unlicensed."


Nikpai and Perkal aren't the only teachers who have left Minnesota Technology in recent months. According to school records, two other licensed teachers have been fired in the past two months, and at least five teachers have resigned since the school opened its doors in the fall of 1998. With a teaching staff that has never exceeded ten, that turnover rate has raised concern among some students and parents.

Complaints against St. Paul's Minnesota Technology High School have sparked one lawsuit, one government investigation, and a lot of heated debate
Tony Nelson
Complaints against St. Paul's Minnesota Technology High School have sparked one lawsuit, one government investigation, and a lot of heated debate

"Students get attached to certain teachers, and when they leave that causes an emotional impact on all of us," says Joe Petland, the student representative on the school's board of directors. "It's like we're losing a good friend." Petland voiced similar worries at the school board's March 15 meeting, as did several parents and teachers. The board took no action on the matter but scheduled more discussion for its next meeting May 15.

One reason for the high turnover, critics say, is the school's use of "at-will" contracts: While employment at traditional public schools is governed by complex tenure rules, Minnesota Technology teachers can quit or be fired with two weeks' notice. Jennings says most of the departures came when teachers failed to adapt to the school's experimental nature; administrators are working, he adds, to improve faculty stability. Concerning Nikpai's case, Jennings will only say, "He wanted to work with a few gifted kids. We took a chance on him. We worked hard and it just didn't work out." The school has since replaced Nikpai with an unlicensed teacher.

Sandra Peterson, co-president of the state teachers' union, Education Minnesota, says she is worried that administrators--especially at small schools and charters--may be getting too cavalier about what it takes to be a teacher. "We have a teaching shortage especially in technology, math, science, and special education," she notes. "[But] you can't just call in community experts and call them teachers. They need to be licensed."

Joe Nathan, who helped write the state statute governing charter schools and serves as director of the Center for School Change, agrees. Last fall the center released a survey of 710 public-school principals around the state; more than half reported having difficulty finding enough qualified teachers, and 30 percent had used "alternative licensing and other nontraditional programs" to fill out their faculty rosters.

Charters, Nathan says, may find it particularly hard to find teachers; the schools often struggle financially and can't guarantee long-term contracts. By the same token, he says, the startups are especially dependent on qualified, experienced staff: "Starting any new enterprise is going to be difficult. But we need people in education to understand what they're getting into. We need opportunity and more accountability."

Ario Nikpai, for his part, says he hopes his personal battle with Minnesota Technology--his lawsuit asks for at least $50,000 in back pay and legal fees--will spark further investigation. "For me that school was like the sound of the dona, an Armenian instrument similar to the trumpet," Nikpai says. "From a distance, the sound is beautiful. But once you get up close, it's atonal and harsh."

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