The truth behind TiZA

The controversial charter school was more than just a First Amendment fiasco

This past June, dozens of students packed into the gymnasium of Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy for an end-of-the-year awards ceremony. Rows of Muslim children dressed in powder-blue uniforms and traditional Islamic head scarves sat on the floor as Asad Zaman, the school's executive director, honored the academy's best and brightest.

A Bangladeshi immigrant with dark eyes and a calculated goatee, Zaman handed out trophies for good grades, model citizenship, and high test scores. He posed for photographs with students in front of a TiZA banner displaying the school's dedication to "preserving our values and achieving academic excellence."

The assembly was an annual event at TiZA, a charter school founded in 2003 and named for the Muslim conqueror who took Spain in the eighth century, but the past year had been a particularly tough one. Since January 2009, TiZA had been at war with the American CivilLiberties Union, and now the school's charter authorization was set to expire. Concerned students asked their teachers if the school was going to close.

Asad Zaman at TiZA in 2007
Jonathan Chapman
Asad Zaman at TiZA in 2007
Ahmad El Bendary sponsored TiZA
courtesy of Islamic Relief USA
Ahmad El Bendary sponsored TiZA

"We tried not to stress the kids out," says Heidi Pendroy, a first-grade teacher at TiZA since fall 2005.

On the last day of school, a parade of parents approached their children's teachers to say farewell for perhaps the last time.

"Sister, I hope we see you again," one mom said to Christa Ragatz, an elderly white woman who'd been teaching first grade for the past two years.

"I hope I see you again too, sister," Ragatz responded.

The teachers shared the same concerns about TiZA's future, despite Zaman's assurances that the school would survive. In staff meetings, Zaman told his teachers that there was a "99 percent" chance TiZA would re-open in the fall.

"I remember talking to other staff members and saying, 'It must be the opposite,'" says Tamer Abdelaziz, an Egyptian teacher's aide who worked at TiZA for six years.

Sara Wright, a young teacher who began her career at TiZA, remembers waving goodbye to her students as they boarded the school bus and thinking, "This is probably the last time I'm ever going to see you."

When the school closed on June 30, its teachers hustled to find new jobs for the fall. What no one expected was for the school to declare bankruptcy after it closed, meaning that the teachers wouldn't be paid for work they'd already done.

"We were always told not to worry," says Justin Feldkamp, a gym teacher at TiZA. "It turns out they didn't even pay us the money we actually worked for. It just stinks to eat that payment."

On July 31, 2002, Zaman filed the application to create TiZA. Minnesota law requires anyone who plans to open a charter school to find a nonprofit willing to vouch for the charter and monitor it. So Zaman took a trip to Chicago in search of a sponsor.

Zaman attended the Muslim American Society conference in the Windy City, where he met with Ahmad El Bendary, the founder and CEO of Islamic Relief USA. El Bendary, a portly engineer who resembles an Egyptian Santa Claus, agreed to meet with Zaman and Hesham Hussein, a co-founder of the school.

The men sat down for "maybe 20 minutes" of coffee, remembers El Bendary in a deposition, during which Zaman and Hussein made their pitch for the school.

El Bendary didn't know the Twin Cities well, having just made his first visit the previous year, but Islamic Relief had a number of donors in the area and wanted to help the growing Somali community.

"I did believe after the conversation that one of the best ways to pay back the community and serve them is through this idea of sponsoring the charter school," El Bendary testified.

El Bendary discussed Islamic Relief's responsibilities with Zaman and Hussein, and was assured that the sponsor's job was simply to oversee the school's financial health and academic progress.

"That is it," El Bendary understood. "That's all of it."

A couple of weeks after the meeting, El Bendary took a call from Zaman asking him to affirm that he'd sponsor TiZA. El Bendary agreed. "It's a great project and there's no liability basically," El Bendary figured.

Before the Department of Education will accept a charter school's sponsor, the sponsor must retain a "monitor" responsible for supervising the school. The school recruited Wayne Jennings, a white hair of the charter school movement with over 50 years of experience in education.

Jennings's colleagues in the charter school movement were concerned about the school, and took their complaints to the state Department of Education. "There were complaints that this might be a school for terrorists, or it might have connections with enemies of the United States and that it might be a school for training people in anti-democratic values," Jennings recalled in his deposition.

Joe Nathan, another of the founding fathers of the charter school movement, had additional concerns. Nathan was afraid that if TiZA floundered, it would "jeopardize the [charter school] movement."

(Nathan declined to be interviewed for this article but denies that those were his concerns, saying he was primarily worried about Islamic Relief being an out-of-state organizer.)

After some investigation, Jennings decided that the concerns about TiZA and Islamic Relief were "irrational." Jennings negotiated his consulting fee with TiZA, first requesting $1,400 a month before being talked down to $800.

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