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The cafeteria at Noble Academy charter school in Brooklyn Park is adorned with Laotian-style ornamentation, a nod to its mostly Hmong student body. Employees at St. Paul’s Higher Ground Academy can converse in the first languages of its predominantly East African population. Nearly all the students at Friendship Academy of the Arts in Minneapolis are black.

To compete for students, Minnesota’s charter schools mold themselves with distinct identities that often appeal to individual racial or ethnic groups. That approach has helped create schools so racially homogeneous that more than three-quarters of elementary students at Twin Cities charters attend schools with 80 percent or higher white or nonwhite enrollment.

It’s a higher rate of racial concentration than traditional public elementary schools, which in Minneapolis and St. Paul have reached levels of segregation not seen since the 1980s. And many charter schools have served homogeneous student bodies from the start.

Charter school supporters make no apologies for the lack of diversity in their classrooms.

“Choice is like a civil right,” said Bill Wilson, executive director of Higher Ground Academy. “Choice is democracy.”

Yet in a lawsuit filed against the state this month, attorneys blame charters for heightening segregation in Minneapolis and St. Paul schools. The lack of diversity in charters also has caught the attention of the Minnesota Department of Education, which is considering whether charters should be subject to state integration rules for the first time.

Advocates for charters say mandating integration would remove the pillar of charters: parental freedom to choose the best-fitting school. Others say segregated schools do a disservice to students.

Diversity in schools gives students increased critical thinking skills and resiliency in different environments, said Halley Potter, who studies integration at the Century Foundation, a public policy think tank in New York.

“It’s a mistake to settle for an education approach with a more segregated student body, even when you’re producing strong academic results,” Potter said.

Mandate would cause chaos

A majority of charters in the Twin Cities enroll heavy concentrations of students of color, while some lean toward mostly white student bodies. Only 16 of the metro area’s 72 elementary-level charter schools are integrated with what education researchers consider a healthy mix of white and minority students.

Charters emerged with the state’s first law in 1991, just as elementary schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul began to see an uptick in the percentage of students in segregated schools for the first time since the 1970s. The number of charters has grown steadily; statewide, 200 such schools enroll about 48,000 students.

Many charters were established to provide language or cultural specialties parents craved but couldn’t find elsewhere or to serve as havens for children who were unsuccessful in traditional schools.

Although charters are public schools, they aren’t required to follow state laws that mandate integration if individual schools have significantly higher concentrations of students of color than the district. But this year, the Department of Education proposed a rule that, if approved at a January hearing, would change that.

Charters with comparably high or low concentrations of students of color could be required to implement plans for integration and achievement. The goal of the program is to give students exposure to those with different backgrounds, said Daron Korte, an assistant commissioner in the department. Charters wouldn’t be forced to meet race quotas, he said.

The current mandate for districts costs the state about $70 million a year, and is expected to slightly increase if charters are added.

School executives say that this requirement would be chaotic for their charters, especially for those that cater to specific cultures or languages. The Minnesota Association of Charter Schools argues that the education department is out of bounds, saying only the Legislature can mandate integration.

Diversity vs. choice

On a recent school day, a slate of student council candidates pitched dreams for improving Friendship Academy of the Arts to a sea of mostly black elementary schoolers at the Minneapolis charter school. Staff members and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison — the state’s first black member of Congress — cheered them on.

Friendship Academy, whose student body is 95 percent black, brims with the inspiration of black role models. The school doesn’t market exclusively to black families, said Charvez Russell, the school’s executive director, but he said he thinks there is value in embracing African-American history and culture.

“Diversity is important,” he said, “but choice is, too.”

Wilson, the Higher Ground Academy leader, shakes his head when he hears the word segregation used to describe the makeup of charter schools. As a child, Wilson was bused to a school in southern Indiana just for children of color. That is real segregation, he said.

Just because a school reflects the population of a city doesn’t make it segregated, he said.

Friendship is one of a handful of charter schools serving predominantly low-income, minority populations that have unusually high proficiency rates on state standardized math and reading exams. Charter proponents often point to these schools as evidence of their success.

Noble Academy Superintendent Neal Thao said he promotes his school to all families, and opens admission to students of all backgrounds. The small numbers of non-Hmong students who attend the charter must also be able to read and write Hmong upon eighth-grade graduation.

The school may add more language classes if forced to integrate, added Deputy Superintendent Mai Yia Chang. But it would come at the cost of dismantling the school’s successful program.

“We want them to have the value for who we are,” she said. “We are meeting that need head on, and we are also meeting the academic needs head on.”

beena.raghavendran@startribune.com • 612-673-4569