Blacked Out

Immigrants sue Minneapolis school for the right to a decent education

By his own account, all Ibrahim Mumid wanted was a chance to understand. "I came to U.S. in 1999," says the Ethiopian immigrant. "In five years," he adds, lower lip trembling, "no speak English, no write my name."

Four of those years were spent at Lincoln High School, whose campus was recently relocated from Nicollet Avenue in south Minneapolis to the heart of downtown. Neither a charter school nor a public school, Lincoln is a private venture operated by an organization called the Institute for New Americans (INA), which has a contract with the Minneapolis public school system to educate teenaged immigrants. The school's annual enrollment fluctuates, but generally hovers around 300 students per year. Mumid is one of 13 immigrant students who have filed a civil lawsuit against Lincoln, alleging that their human rights were violated because they did not receive an adequate education as required by state and federal laws. Also named in the suit were the INA and the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Mumid, who wears a hearing aid, describes being kicked out of class and sent to a cafeteria when he asked for help. Through a translator, he tells of the horror he felt when Lincoln High officials scooped him out of class one day and drove him to an adult education center. Frantic and confused, he called his brother to come pick him up. Mumid had been "aged out": At 24, he was too old to stay in school, despite not having completed sufficient work to earn his diploma.

Earlier this year, the Minnesota Department of Education investigated Lincoln after a number of complaints about the school from Mumid and others. The results of that investigation were delivered to MPS Superintendent Thandiwe Peebles in June, and its "findings of fact" appear to buttress claims made in the students' lawsuit.

Specifically, the MDE investigation discovered that just 17 percent of the students at Lincoln passed the Minnesota Basic Standards Test over the past three years, compared with a 40 percent pass rate for ELL (English-language learner) students throughout the district. Over the past three years, Lincoln has identified just one student as requiring special education services, and less than 1 percent of its population has used those services. According to the MDE report, the state average is 12.5 percent. "Based on the numbers alone, it is apparent that ALHS does not have a system in place designed to identify students with disabilities," says the report.

"The lawsuit challenges the practice of the Minneapolis School District of using Abraham Lincoln High School as a warehouse for immigrant high school aged students," says David Shulman, one of the lawyers representing the immigrants. "Students sat in mainstream classrooms for years, not understanding what was being said, or what was being taught."

A press conference last week to rebut the lawsuit turned into a small disaster when MPS legal counsel Allen Giles and Lincoln High Executive Director Joel Gibson both stated that they hadn't read the state's three-month-old report on the school. Another MPS representative, Mary Berry, asserted that the state's June report was preliminary, not final, but Amy Roberts, the Department of Education official who sent the report to Superintendent Peebles, emphasized that "this is a final decision. We render decisions to complaints. Now, it can include corrective action if we feel it is warranted, and the response to that corrective action is obviously ongoing."

MPS officials believe that the school has already begun to address some of the nine corrective actions prescribed in the state's 13-page, single-spaced report. At the end of the last school year, the district responded to student complaints by working with Lincoln High administrators to hire a special-education teacher and create a grievance procedure at the school. Afterward, the Minneapolis district elected to proceed with the second and final year of its current contract with the school, a development that may have helped prompt the lawsuit.

"We thought they were going to close Lincoln and send students to other schools [in the district] that have shown they do a better job of educating these students," says Ladan Yusuf, executive director of Crossing Barriers, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy organization that has received dozens of complaints about Lincoln. Indeed, a March 24 article about Lincoln in the Star Tribune was headlined, "Troubled Minneapolis School Gets Notice to Close."

"We never said we were going to close the school down," counters Birch Jones, the Minneapolis school system's executive director for alternative and charter schools. "I know it was the desire of the students who complained to the state and the [state] office of civil rights. But we take these complaints very seriously and we're prepared to do what's necessary," Jones says. "What this points to is how difficult it is to provide the appropriate special-ed support for students who have a different language and culture. That is what hits us right in the face. The state has been kind enough to give us some extra time and that's what we are working on."

 
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