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Triad Math and Science Academy in Greensboro is eyeing the former Exploris Middle School in Raleigh for a new campus. But parents and former TMSA employees have concerns they hope will be addressed before the charter is approved.

Questions loom about group proposing Raleigh charter school 

Charter schools under the microscope (Part 3/3)

Charter schools under the microscope

Illustration by Nathan Golub

Charter schools under the microscope

Editor's note: Comments were closed on this story because of the level of vitriol and orchestrated ad hominem attacks.

An accomplished charter school in Greensboro is eyeing the former Exploris Middle School in Raleigh for a new campus that could open this fall. But parents have raised questions about the quality of some of its teachers, many of whom are from Turkey. Those Turkish ties have also led to speculation that Triad Math and Science Academy (TMSA) could be part of a larger network of schools affiliated with the Islamic Gülen movement, an allegation that school officials and supporters vehemently deny.

The State Board of Education will begin discussions next week on whether to allow TMSA to open the school. If the charter is granted, TMSA's board of directors would add two new members from Wake County, and the same board would govern both schools.

Now in its fourth year, TMSA has 500 students in kindergarten through 10th grade; last year TMSA students had higher passing rates on state tests than students in Guilford County and across the state. Parents say they appreciate the small class sizes and the emphasis on technology and academic clubs, such as prize-winning robotics and math teams. The school has a waiting list of more than 1,000 students, Principal Hakan Orak told the N.C. Public Charter School Advisory Council in an interview earlier this month.

"We're confident we won't have any problem with student recruitment in Wake," Orak told the board.

But parents and former employees have concerns they hope state decision makers and the school will address before the charter is approved. They include the school's use of international teachers and staff visiting on visas, some of whom lack the English skills to adequately teach their classes; and classroom management, particularly for some international faculty. And then there's what a former TMSA employee called the "elephant in the corner."

click to enlarge Fethullah Gülen - ILLUSTRATION BY NATHAN GOLUB

Several times since TMSA opened in 2008, parents and former employees have speculated that TMSA is linked to Fethullah Gülen, a controversial Islamic preacher whom religious scholars regard as promoting a moderate form of Islam. Gülen fled Turkey in 1998 to avoid facing charges he was trying to overthrow Turkey's secular regime to return the county to Islamic rule.

Alan Hawkes, a member of the N.C. Public Charter School Advisory Council, treaded lightly on the subject when the council interviewed applicants for the new Raleigh school on Jan. 11.

"The [state] attorneys advised me to be very gentle in bringing it up," Hawkes said.

But it had to come out—it was going to come out one way or another, he said.

Last fall, a former TMSA employee sent a missive to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI), making multiple allegations, including that the school was tied to Gülen. Orak said the allegations are from a disgruntled worker and are untrue. He said he furnished DPI with a 100-plus-page response that included a slate of parent testimonials. Still, at least two families removed their children from TMSA based solely on suspicions the school had Gülen ties, Orak told the Indy.

Last fall, Orak tried to dispel the rumors to a reporter at the Greensboro News & Record.

"A lot of people in Turkey are inspired by Gülen," Orak said, according to a short blog entry on the newspaper's website. "There may be people inspired by Gülen who are here. That doesn't make it a Gülen school."

TMSA provided the Indy with financial reports from its outside auditor for the past three school years. Auditors found no major concerns or errors.

Parent Marcy Schneider has two sons at the school. She has visited the school almost every day since her older son enrolled in 2008.

"I find it kind of insulting as a parent [to think] that my child would be at a school where that's going on, and I wouldn't know it," said Schneider, president of the school's Parent Volunteer Organization.

DPI officials have found no merit to the claims, said Joel Medley, director of the Office of Charter Schools at DPI. With the application to create a Raleigh school, decision makers have received more allegations against the school, via email.

"But it's mostly anonymous," Medley said. "There's been no way to follow up." The Indy requested these emails, along with other correspondence regarding TMSA, but the documents were not provided by press time.

The charter schools office has consultants who monitor the institutions through site visits and reports such as financial audits, Medley said. With four employees, each worker has a case-load of about 25 schools, but the office could soon add two positions, Medley said. The staff member who works with TMSA was on medical leave and not available for an interview, but Medley said there's no evidence the allegations are true. DPI is not investigating any further claims, he said.

In the past two years, state legislatures and education agencies, as well as investigators with the U.S. departments of education and labor and the FBI, have been examining links among the more than 120 public schools in 25 states that appear to be linked to or inspired by Gülen. All have denied any connection to Gülen.

Largely, the suspicions are not that Gülen's supporters are using the public schools to proselytize Islam, but that they're using public tax dollars to fund unknown goals.

According to multiple national reports, including investigations by USA Today, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times, the federal probes are looking into several issues with the schools, including their use of international work visas and federal education dollars, and whether employees and companies that win contracts with the schools are tithing income back to the so-called Gülen movement.

Organized efforts to pool income from charter schools could mean billions of dollars every year, collectively, to institutions promoting Turkey and Gülen's brand of Islam in the U.S. and abroad.

Sharon Higgins, an Oakland, Calif., public school parent who has blogged extensively about her suspicions of Gülen schools in the U.S., says she's concerned that parents are selecting these schools without all the information.

"This group is actively hiding and disguising its connections," she said. "Why are members of a religious group hiding their affiliation, and taking our tax dollars without revealing their motivations?"

According to a 2010 profile in Time magazine, Gülen, now 70, oversees a multi-billion dollar international network of businesses, including private schools in central Asia and Africa, and even a national newspaper in Turkey. A March 2011 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, reported that when Gülen sought a green card to stay in the U.S., his attorney depicted Gülen as an influential figure in education in the U.S., pointing to a network of public charter schools as evidence. As early as 2006, a former U.S. consul general in Istanbul wrote to the U.S. Secretary of State about her "unease" at the large number of Turkish nationals applying for visas to teach in charter schools in the U.S., with "science" or "academy" in their names, according to memos recently released through WikiLeaks.

Gülen and his representatives now deny that the imam has any connection to U.S. public charter schools. They say Gülen may simply have inspired the schools' founders through some of his many speeches and essays, in which he often promotes public service through education.

"Being inspired by Gülen, or Martin Luther King Jr., or Gandhi is not a crime," Orak told the Indy. "It doesn't matter. What is important for parents is the dedication of the workers, what we do for the students."

Charter schools suspected of Gülen ties are cookie-cutter K–12 academies focused on math, science and engineering, founded by highly educated Turkish scientists and businessmen. Many of the founders have advanced degrees but often limited experience in education. In addition to being founded by Turkish nationals, the schools often spend thousands of dollars to sponsor H1B visas for international faculty and staff, mostly from Turkey.

TMSA fits the model. The board that founded the school in 2008 had five members, three from Turkey, according to their résumés. A fourth board member had a Turkish spouse, and was also the lone member of the board who had a background in education. The board now has seven members, the majority of them from Turkey, according to their résumés.

Although TMSA's charter school application and mission make no mention of an emphasis on international or Turkish culture, the school offers Turkish as a foreign language, as well as Spanish. Its students participate in academic competitions sponsored by the Turkish Olympiad, and the school organizes trips to Turkey once or twice a year.

TMSA also has eight international teachers on visas, including five from Turkey. All together, TMSA has 10 Turkish or Turkish-American employees, of 57 total, including the principal and assistant principal. Since it opened, TMSA has sponsored 17 visas for teachers, at a cumulative cost of $25,500, Orak said. For the past two years, the school has had an annual operating budget of about $4 million, he said.

School officials say they're forced to hire foreign teachers in subjects such as math, science and computer technology because there are so few qualified candidates in the U.S. A former TMSA employee says the claims are untrue—that while she worked in the school, there were plenty of qualified job applicants, even for hard-to-fill positions such as science and math.

But the school isn't necessarily looking for teachers with lots of experience, Orak said. They need to be qualified but also need to meet other requirements and take on mandatory duties other than teaching during the day, such as running clubs after school or tutoring on weekends.

Experienced teachers also would likely earn less at TMSA as compared to a traditional public school, Orak said. A North Carolina-licensed English teacher with 10 years' experience and a master's degree, would earn $45,940 in Guilford County schools. At TMSA, he or she would be paid $39,500, based on a TMSA salary scale.

State Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, toured TMSA last week, and questioned Orak about the availability of local teachers. Since 2008, more than 2,100 public school teachers have been laid off and the state has eliminated more than 6,100 teaching jobs, including 187 in Guilford County.

"I have a neighbor whose wife is going to China to teach physics," Harrison said after the tour. "It seemed odd to me that you wouldn't be able to hire a qualified teacher to teach math and science when we have qualified math and science teachers here going abroad because they can't find a job."

Many international teachers who have arrived at TMSA have such poor English skills that they can't do their jobs effectively, parents said.

Greensboro parent Linda Bedell said she withdrew her son from the school halfway through his eighth-grade year. Her son had one teacher who could barely speak English, she said, another international teacher that instead of teaching class, passed out worksheets every day, and a U.S.-born English teacher who couldn't punctuate or spell.

"I'm not talking about something that was less than perfect," Bedell said. "I'm talking about something that was unacceptably bad." Bedell said she spent the remainder of the year home-schooling her son so he would be caught up to attend a traditional public school the following year.

Several other parents have similar stories. All told, about half of the school's eighth-grade class didn't re-enroll the following year, said Schneider, president of the parent organization. Schneider stuck with the school for its other qualities, even though she says her own son "may as well have lost that whole year [in science]. Some parents weren't going to put up with that."

Schneider also said she supports international teachers but questions why so many are from Turkey.

"It starts to look like it's not what you know, but who you know," she said. "And I think we lost some [very involved] parents because of it.

TMSA doesn't try to recruit teachers specifically from Turkey, Orak said. The school has relationships with Greensboro College, UNC-Greensboro and other local universities to find teachers. But Turkish teachers seem to be drawn to the school, Orak said, perhaps through "minority psychology"—wanting to work in an environment where they'll work with other Turks.

It's the same mind set that drove Orak to his first teaching experience at Fulton Science Academy's high school in Alpharetta, Ga., another school operated by Turkish nationals accused of Gülen ties. (FSA's middle school is currently trying to renew its charter, and is embroiled in its own controversy.) After moving to the U.S. and earning master's and doctorate degrees in textile engineering, Orak decided to change careers to teach high school math. His third child was on the way, he said, and he wanted to focus on educating children. After just two full years of teaching experience, he became principal of TMSA.

Orak said he can't pinpoint what's driving the trend of Turkish nationals launching charter schools, with some of their leaders abandoning the prospect of more lucrative corporate careers, much like he did. In Turkish culture, education is an important privilege, he said; doctors and teachers are perhaps the most respected professionals.

News reports and websites throughout the U.S. say the systematic efforts are not only altruistic but financial. Bloggers and researchers draw countless connections between board members and educators in the charter schools and large public and private institutions inspired by or related to Gülen. Often, nonprofit Gülen-inspired "dialogue" groups, or organizations that promote Turkish culture, take the charter schools under their wing.

A 2010 USA Today report lays out one example: An Ohio-based Horizon Science Academy, part of a large chain of Turkish-run charter schools, signed a lease for its school building with the Niagara Foundation of Chicago. Gülen is the foundation's honorary president.

Other ties are more organic. Many schools have common founding members, board members and teachers. For instance, employees at TMSA have applied in recent years to open additional charters in Cumberland and Union counties. Ali Tombak, the chairman for TMSA's board, was also on the board of an Ohio Horizon school, according to his résumé.

Former TMSA board member Suzan Mertyurek is trying to launch a math and science charter school in Knoxville, Tenn. She also works with the Knoxville Turkish Cultural Center and is a trustee for Virginia International University (VIU). According to a 2011 report, Gülen's lawyers told the The New York Times that VIU, in Fairfax, Va., is one of the U.S. institutions Gülen has inspired.

For at least six years, education consultant Hasan Karaburk worked as a top administrator for VIU, where he last served as the vice president for student affairs. More recently, Karaburk has been visiting TMSA and other charter schools as a consultant for the Washington Education Foundation (WEDUF) in Washington, D.C. Karaburk appeared at a January meeting of the N.C. Public Charter School Advisory Council, where he sat with and spoke with applicants for both TMSA's proposed Raleigh school and the Piedmont IT Academy, which also had applied to open in 2012. WEDUF's mission, according to its website, is to help launch and support charter schools in the D.C. area. The group has worked with the proposed charter schools in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, including the Chesapeake Math & IT Academy, according to charter school applications and other public documents. According to domain and IP searches, the Chesapeake school's website until recently shared an IP address with websites including fethullah-Gulen.org, fgulenforum.org, and hizmetforum.org, all of which seek to dispel rumors about Gülen and share biographical information on the imam and the movement in his name (which is often referred to as hizmet, or service).

But despite the concerns of some community members, TMSA's administration has never held a meeting with parents or teachers to openly address the concerns, Orak said. He says he welcomes any concerned parents to speak with him. "It's better for parents to do their own research," he said. "I'm focusing on doing my job."

Even if the allegations are untrue, the school—at the very least—is facing a major public relations problem. Medley, the state director of charter schools, said he visited the school last week and asked again about the issue. "I just asked if they were going to respond to the allegations," Medley said. "It's out there." School officials need to be more proactive in addressing it, he said.

Hawkes, the N.C. Public Charter School Advisory Council member who initially raised the questions at the Jan. 11 meeting, said he was satisfied with the answers the school representatives provided. "It didn't really sound that nefarious. It's a nationalistic movement in Turkey but it doesn't seem to have any fundamentalist Islamic agenda," said Hawkes, who is a founding board member for another Greensboro charter school. "They claimed not to be connected with it, anyway. We have to take them at their word. If there are further concerns, the state school board may or may not delve into it further."

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