License, Please

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

Last October Ario Nikpai thought he had landed his dream job. The Armenian native and University of Minnesota math and education graduate had been hired to teach at St. Paul's Minnesota Technology High School--a year-old experimental institution offering an avant-garde hybrid of liberal-arts education and high-tech training. The school, located in St. Paul's Midway neighborhood even had a catchy, classics-meet-cyberspace mantra: "Plato with a laptop!"

Minnesota Technology was excited to employ Nikpai, too: He was a Minnesota-certified math teacher who had taught at both Osseo High School and Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis. In a letter of recommendation, the charter high school's lead teacher wrote: "Mr. Nikpai is highly qualified for this position....We are eager to gain the employment of Mr. Nikpai at the earliest date possible."

Barely three months later, however, the 52-year-old teacher and his employer had parted ways on less than amicable terms. Nikpai says that during his short tenure at Minnesota Technology he was ostracized by other teachers and occasionally asked to do "custodial work"--assemble furniture, clean up after a graduation party--even though he had a medically diagnosed back condition. The relationship deteriorated, he alleges, when he questioned some of the school's management practices, including its hiring of teachers who did not hold Minnesota licenses.

"Would you go under surgery with an uncertified surgeon?" he asks sarcastically. "No [teacher] should go to a high school without certification. It's a basic right of the student."

Minnesota Technology fired Nikpai in mid-January, and on March 30 he filed a lawsuit in Ramsey County District Court against the school and its superintendent, Wayne Jennings, for discrimination, breach of contract, and defamation. It was the loudest salvo yet in a long-simmering dispute: In recent months a number of teachers and parents have lodged complaints about Minnesota Technology with the school's governing board as well as its sponsoring institution, Inver Hills Community College, and the State of Minnesota. At the heart of the dispute, say those involved, is a simple question: Just how far can experimental public schools push the regulatory envelope?

In 1991 Minnesota made national headlines when it became the first state to allow private organizations to start and run public "charter" schools, as long as they could find an educational institution or school district to sponsor them. According to the University of Minnesota's Center for School Change, more than 60 charters now operate statewide; most are small institutions run by groups of teachers and parents. Minnesota Technology has an estimated 85 students and is operated by a nonprofit educational consulting firm, Designs for Learning, founded in 1987 by Wayne Jennings, a former St. Paul schools administrator.

Though charter schools are funded by tax dollars, they are exempt from many of the state regulations governing regular public schools. One rule they do have to follow, however, is the state statute requiring teachers to hold a valid license. Under Minnesota law, explains Michael Tillmann, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Teaching, schools wishing to hire an unlicensed teacher must petition the board and prove "hardship"; the board can then grant a provisional or limited license.

DCFL records indicate, however, that only two of the school's nine teachers teach subjects for which they are licensed, and five teachers hold no license at all. One of the unlicensed instructors is a University of Minnesota freshman who began teaching networking and other computer courses when he was still a senior at Minnetonka High School. The teacher, Bill Oyler, declined to comment, as did a number of other current and former Minnesota Technology staffers contacted for this story.

Wayne Jennings, the Designs for Learning founder, who also serves as superintendent of Minnesota Technology, says his school is not breaking the law: The unlicensed faculty members, he explains, are not actually considered teachers, but "community experts" who work under close supervision. "We are using a model called differentiated staffing," Jennings explains. "We work as a team. The licensed teachers are ultimately in charge."

Not so, says Paul Perkal, who taught computer courses at Minnesota Technology without a license until late January, when he was fired. "I was thrown into one class that I didn't have the knowledge to teach," Perkal asserts. "You're much more on your own than even a licensed teacher in a [noncharter] public school. There is no supervision. There is no oversight."

Minnesota Technology's charter agreement with Inver Hills Community College specifies that the school "shall employ and contract with necessary teachers who hold valid licenses to perform the particular service for which they are employed." But Bruce Lindberg, dean of business at Inver Hills and the college's liaison to the charter school, maintains that it's not the sponsor's job to monitor hiring practices. "That's between the school and the state," he says.

Cindy Lavorato, assistant commissioner of management services at the Department of Children, Families and Learning, says her agency has "limited control" over charter schools and refers questions on licensing to the state board of teaching. Board director Tillmann says he isn't aware of any complaints about Minnesota Technology teachers.

Lavorato says her department is investigating one complaint against Minnesota Technology; she won't discuss details of the inquiry, but many of the school's former teachers believe it concerns the handling of individual education programs (IEPs)--the records documenting each student's needs. Perkal says that during his tenure at Minnesota Technology he never knew how to help his special-ed students because their records were not available.

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.

"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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