“Everyone’s so close” at Cedar Riverside Community School in Minneapolis


The wind blasted through the grounds of Riverside Plaza, where eighth-graders Fathia Hassan and Sundus Yusuf had just finished Peace Patrol.

It’s a daily duty in which Cedar Riverside Community School’s upperclassmen escort younger students to their apartments in the Plaza, making sure everyone gets safely home.

Peace Patrol fits in with CRCS’s close-knit and familial nature, which is what Hassan likes most about her school.

“We have a small class, so the teachers – they know everybody,” she said. “They can help you out, and they can talk to you one on one.”

Small class sizes are one reason why the school has been increasingly popular, Executive Director Ricky White said. Last year they had 108 students in grades kindergarten through eight. This year they have 145 students, and there are waiting lists or near-waiting lists for almost every grade.

CRCS was founded in 1993 as the country’s third charter school. Today 99 percent of its students come in as English Language Learners, and almost all qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. Most reside in the Plaza, and the majority have parents who recently immigrated from East Africa, White said.

Many of White’s colleagues would consider these demographics barriers, but at CRCS, he said, they are an impetus for success.

The school’s 2009-10 standardized test scores in math placed its students squarely above state and Minneapolis Public School averages. And overall, the student body’s reading scores improved from the previous year as well.

These scores aren’t a fluke, White said, but the result of a thoughtfully prepared curriculum.

For example, they have a dedicated math specialist, Kari Moore, who teaches all the program’s students. Teachers also frequently assess their students’ literacy progress, so they know where each pupil stands and can accordingly adjust their instruction. And Augsburg College, the charter school’s authorizing agent, sends a steady stream of hard-working education majors to help out at the school.

The tightly packed school will be expanded during Riverside Plaza’s reconstruction — though this, White said, is cause for both excitement and concern.

If the school doesn’t get a handicapped-accessible elevator, it will lose its $17,000-a-month rent subsidy from the state. But if the Plaza acquires historic preservation status, a designation the developer is seeking, the school may not be able to get an elevator.

“We need to be able to pay the rent,” White said.

As for the coming year, the school’s staff are students are hoping for the best while plowing ahead with the work that’s before them now.

Last Wednesday afternoon middle-schoolers Waris Abdullahi and Fatiya Kedir read studiously at their desks. It was the last ten minutes of the day on the final day of the academic quarter. The young women are in the school’s highest reading group; over the next two days their parents, as well as the parents of their peers, would come in for parent-teacher conferences.

Abdullahi has attended CRCS since kindergarten, as has Kedir. They didn’t hesitate when they were asked what they want their future professions to be.

Pediatrician, Abdullahi said; scientist or doctor, added Kedir.

They also didn’t dally when asked to pose for a photo; they and several other girls immediately lined up, hugged one another and grinned.

Nor did Abdullahi pause when asked what she likes most about her school, which is also the school of her two brothers.

“Everybody’s so close,” she said, preparing to head outside for Peace Patrol.

High-rise ghettos or urban villages?
Are the Riverside Plaza and Seward high-rise apartment complexes, home to low-income residents for more than 35 years, “beyond merely shabby” and filled with crime? Or are they “a vital and fascinating mix of cultures … a series of villages in the city with the opportunity to begin life in the United States among one’s countrymen?” Our series highlights concerns and facts, featuring the voices and stories of people who live and work in the communities. Click here for links to all of the articles in the series.