Muslim group’s plan to rent Holland School raises questions

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Although initially it seemed that several groups might be interested in renting the empty Holland School, 1534 6th St. NE, from the Minneapolis Public School District (MPS), the number shrank to one when it came down to the final proposals.

A collaboration of Muslim groups operating under the acronym EARN, East African Resource and Nurturing center, turned in the only proposal; they’re requesting an eight-year lease and say they would use the 51,000 square-foot building as a cultural and education center.

Members of the Islamic Cultural Center (ICC), 2534 Central Ave. NE, are EARN members. ICC president Farok Hamod spoke for the group at a June 21 school reuse meeting, hosted by Minneapolis Public Schools. About 50 people, most of them from EARN, attended the meeting. Consultant Kevin Halbach served as moderator.

The background
Halbach said MPS closed Holland when “changing populations required some buildings to be closed.” The school board hopes to lease six buildings, Holland (Northeast), Cooper, Howe and Northrop (South Minneapolis), Willard and Hamilton (North), and sell or lease Phillips, in South Minneapolis. The school board does not intend to demolish any of the buildings, and has limited their future use.

For example, it won’t allow any pre-kindergarten through 12 charter schools or private schools to move in, although proposals that benefit children and the neighborhood may receive preference. The board won’t accept proposals that involve school district participation. And, the board must approve any future tenants’ remodeling plans. At this point, Halbach said, the board has not awarded any leases and “all proposals are being refined.”

Tenants will mow the lawn and pay utility bills, he said, but the school district will do building maintenance—servicing the boiler, for instance.

The proposal
Halbach said EARN has agreed to carry the necessary insurance and maintain the site and parking lot. “They don’t want to do a lot of remodeling and they are interested in an eight-year lease. We anticipate that portions of the building will be used differently as time goes on. They need space for assembly, worship, classrooms and cultural purposes. This is primarily a faith-based, multicultural organization that includes a lot of new immigrants. It [the building] will primarily serve people in the Northeast community.”

Farah Nur acted as EARN spokesperson, saying that they hope to make Holland School a center for the Muslim community in Minneapolis, and see the project as a revitalization for the neighborhood. “It is most appealing to us. Our constituents are all around us. It was a collaborative effort that started with the Islamic Cultural Center. EARN was formed to enhance and improve the lives of immigrants from multiple ethnicities who have bonded together through their common culture and beliefs.”

He said most of the Northeast immigrants in the group are from East Africa; about 100,000 of them now live in the Twin Cities. Others are Middle Eastern, from countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. “There are Arabs and non-Arabs. All are bonded together by Islam.

“The core of their problem is to be able to adapt to a new culture when they come to the Twin Cities. Our fear is that some people might be lost; they might find themselves in situations that are in contradiction to their beliefs. EARN believes that a cultural center will help them adapt and prosper. Here they can maintain their language and ethnicity and have resources available to pass those on to their children and grandchildren. We believe the youth should not be left behind. Also, many immigrants [who fled war-torn countries] have been robbed of an education; they also should not be left behind.”

He said that in addition to having a place for religious congregation and educational instruction, they also hope to use the site for sports and fitness activities. Friday evenings are their prayer time, he added.

Hamod, of ICC, spoke in Arabic with a translator. He said people must look at the commonalities between them. Although some people might have fears and anxieties when foreign neighbors move in, a Muslim who follows his religion is a benefit for the community and the neighborhood. He said the best way for the immigrants to assimilate into their new home is through education, “for the betterment and improvement of their condition as human beings.”

Abdelsalam Adam, an educator and community leader, said many Somalis were drawn to Minnesota because of the reception they received. “Your school system is open and welcoming. Adult learners have an opportunity; it’s like getting a second chance at life. Adults are getting high school diplomas at age 60. I truly believe in the Minnesota Nice concept.”

In the Islamic culture, he added, education never ends. “This community is very family-oriented. We want a place where the kids can have fun. In our culture, neighborliness is very important. People looking for a new house will often ask about the neighbors before they ask about the house. We try to not do anything, like making a lot of noise, to offend our neighbors. When families prepare a meal they cook extra food for anyone who wants to join them. Our doors are always open.”

Adam said they want to have a fitness center in Holland School so that their young people can be involved in activities. Also, Muslim women, because of “their private nature,” find it difficult to use commercial sports and health clubs. As another speaker, Hatem Al Haj, described it, “It will be a place where our ladies can come and not be afraid to say who they are and where they belong.”

Al Haj said the people who will use the building are a mix: Somali, African, black, Muslim, Arab, Asian and Americans (by adoption or birth). Some emigrated from Yemen. They speak languages that include Arabic, English, Somali, Oromo, Swahili.

He said they will make the playground open to the public, and neighbors will be welcome to visit the building and even take some of the classes offered, if they wish.

When asked if ICC will retain its Central Avenue building, Al Haj said they would. “ICC will be one group supporting EARN,” he added, but wouldn’t be relocating into Holland School.

Five Northeast residents (who weren’t EARN members) attended the meeting; two of them said they lived right next to Holland School. One of them, John Paul, said he had concerns about the number of people coming into the neighborhood. He said he was worried about where they would park. A woman commented that the “Russian church” uses Holland School’s parking lot on Sunday mornings. Al Haj said their religious services are Friday afternoons. Although many people might gather for special events, they would be of short duration and most would be able to park on the school grounds.

State Representative Diane Loeffler said she is concerned that MPS might have closed too many schools too quickly. “In Northeast this year they had a hard time finding a classroom for an early childhood education program.” She said she is concerned about the district offering an eight-year lease, when the schools might be needed again sooner than that.

Halbach said that everybody needs to be flexible, adding, “I know [MPS] enrollment has continued to adjust negatively.”

But Loeffler said, “Not for early childhood education. As a state representative, I see what is being planned, and I believe that at some point we will be offering every child an opportunity to attend early childhood education classes.”

She said she supports EARN’s goals for adult education. “My grandparents emigrated from Sweden. I’m not speaking against this in any way. But the school district has a history of not being good at predicting future demands for classes. Sheridan School at Broadway and University, for instance, was closed and put up for sale, but nobody wanted it. Now it’s open again.”

Jill Davis, who lives in Northeast’s Waite Park neighborhood and is a Public Education Northeast (PEN) member, confirmed Loeffler’s statement, adding, that there was no room this year at Waite Park or Pillsbury schools (in Northeast) for early childhood education. To the EARN group, she added, “From what I know, you are a good organization.”

Halbach and Adam said that the building is larger than their current needs, and there might be some classrooms at Holland available for early childhood education.

In a later Northeaster interview, Loeffler said (by e-mail), “Reusing it for an educational purpose such as teaching English, helping adults who didn’t have a chance to get a high school diploma take classes and earn one, fitness classes and preschool programs is commendable.”

She added, however, “I think it’d be better if the district held these school re-use meetings jointly with the area neighborhood group and held them in a local building, preferably the school building to be reused. I expect that the issues raised will be addressed as formal negotiations begin.”

Halbach, who is representing the Minneapolis Public Schools facilities reuse planning team, can be reached at 612-336-9601, and takes e-mails at MPSReuse Plan@mpls.k12.mn.us. The reuse plan for Holland and the other schools can be viewed “here”:http://www.mpls.k12. mn.us.

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