|Forget it Gulenists, signs, slamming comment boards and lies will not save the schools|
|Bekir Duz, leaves a trail of lies and causing harm to American Teachers|
For the first time in four years, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission on Thursday night began the process of closing city charter schools.
The commission voted to put three schools on notice that their five-year operating charters would not be renewed: Truebright Science Academy, Arise Academy, and Hope.
The district's charter-school office had recommended the actions for all three schools based on problems with academics and administration and failing to meet state requirements, such as having 75 percent certified teachers. Arise was also flagged for its financial instability.
The schools will remain open for the 2012-13 academic year.
SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos stressed that the evening's votes were merely the first steps in a lengthy process that includes public hearings and possible appeals to the state Charter School Appeal Board in Harrisburg.
Ramos late Thursday night also announced a controversial new process that delays and changes the game plan for 22 other charters up for renewal this year and the expansion requests of many others.
Commission members said that although Arise's troubled track record did not merit a new, five-year renewal, they expressed interest in working with the school's new board president and CEO to develop a plan with specific performance targets that would allow the school to stay open.
Arise Academy, which opened in 2009, is in Center City and has 181 high school students. It is the nation's first charter for students in foster care, who have a high risk of dropping out of school.
Hope, which opened in 2002, serves 427 ninth through 12th graders on its campus in West Oak Lane. It has small classes and aims to offer a second chance for students who have not fared well in other schools.
Truebright, which opened in North Philadelphia in 2007, has a special focus on science and technology. It has 307 students from seventh through 12th grade.
As The Inquirer has reported, Truebright is one of more than 130 charter schools nationwide run by followers of Turkish Imam M. Fetullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the Poconos.
Several federal agencies are looking into allegations of kickbacks from Turkish teachers to the Gulen movement at the charters nationwide, according to knowledgeable sources. One-third of Truebright's teachers and administrators are Turkish, and most of them are working in this country on non-immigrant visas.
At least nine of Truebright's American educators have filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging they were paid less than Turkish counterparts who are not certified and who are less qualified.
Truebright officials say the school is independent, not part of any alleged network of Turkish charter schools, and is not under investigation.
During Thursday night's meeting, Truebright's board president, Baki Acikel, and CEO, Bekir Duz, criticized Inquirer articles about Truebright, saying they were unfair and based on "unsubstantiated allegations with little focus on the education students at Truebright receive in a safe, nurturing environment."
Duz issued an "open invitation" for federal authorities to come to Truebright to see its operations for themselves. "We have nothing to hide," he said.
The last time the SRC voted against renewing a charter was in 2008, when the commission gave a thumbs-down to two charters in Northwest Philadelphia: Germantown Settlement and Renaissance Charter School.
After public hearings over several days that summer, the SRC voted to close the schools. The state charter appeals board later upheld the SRC's decisions, and both schools closed in June 2009.
In the current round of renewals, the district's charter-school office had recommended approval for 17 of the 22 other schools and was still reviewing five. Officials from the 17 charters had been expecting the SRC would vote on new five-year operating charters Thursday night.
But in the face of mounting fiscal uncertainty in the district and new legal concerns, the SRC on Thursday night decided to scrap the review process it had used last year for renewals. The new plan focuses on negotiating enrollment caps with the charters, and on recruiting students from neighborhoods with few good education options and from specific schools slated to close.
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Truebright Science Academy Charter School in North Philadelphia is one of more than 130 charter schools nationwide run by followers of the Turkish imam M. Fetullah Gulen, and federal officials have put it under a microscope.
Not only are the FBI and the Departments of Labor and Education looking into allegations of kickbacks by Turkish teachers at the charters nationwide, according to knowledgeable sources, but at least nine American teachers and administrators at Truebright have filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. All allege that they were being paid less than noncertified Turkish staffers.
Now the Philadelphia School District's charter office has recommended to the School Reform Commission that it not renew Truebright's five-year operating charter on several grounds, including academic performance, lack of certified staff, and high turnover of administrators. A vote is scheduled for Thursday night.
The school, which enrolls 307 students from seventh grade through high school, gets $3.4 million of its $3.9 million budget this year from the district. Funds from the state and federal government cover the rest. Ninety percent of its students are African American.
The charter school office report does not mention Gulen or note that a third of Truebright's teachers and administrators are from Turkey. Most are working in this country with non-immigrant visas.
Some parents say their children cannot understand their Turkish teachers because their English language skills are deficient. And staffers say the school's operations are shrouded in secrecy, and they risk losing their jobs if they ask too many questions. After The Inquirer reported about federal investigations last year, staffers reported that school officials had shredded documents.
Twenty-five charter schools are up for renewal, and Truebright is one of three the district's charter office says should close.
Bekir Duz, a Turkish national who is Truebright's chief executive officer, said the school was fighting to remain open. Truebright has sent SRC members copies of a detailed, 103-page rebuttal, disputing the report by the district's charter office.
The rebuttal challenges the low rates of teacher certification and high school graduation cited in the report. It says the school has met the state's academic benchmarks for standardized test scores in two of the last three years. It also disputes district calculations that gave Truebright a score of 9 - the second-lowest on a 10-point school-performance index.
"We believe that we are going to get our renewal, because that report is full of mistakes," Duz said.
The Rev. James W. Wright Sr., president of Truebright's parent teachers association, said he was embarrassed to learn a statement that school officials persuaded him to read at a recent SRC meeting erroneously claimed that 97 percent of the first senior class had graduated last June. In reality, only 33 of the 50 students who started in ninth grade stayed and received diplomas, according to a former administrator.
"We are in the dark in terms of knowing factual information," Wright said. "Until you get transparency . . . and you get a level playing field with these guys, we are still pulling at straws."
Wright said that rather than shuttering the school, the SRC should consider replacing the all-Turkish board or adding six non-Turkish members to provide a wider perspective.
"We're all desirous of keeping the school open, and we need to figure out a way to make this happen," said Wright, whose daughter is in the 10th grade and doing well at the school. "We appreciate the good the school has to offer, yet we know it is not the best. We believe it can be better - with or without the current administration and board."
Located at 926 W. Sedgley Ave., Truebright was opened in 2007 by a group of Turkish professionals as a charter with a special focus on science and technology. Although authorized to enroll 350, the school has struggled to recruit and retain students. On average, 51 students leave each year. The school is open to students across the city, but preference is given to children from the neighborhood
Parents and staff interviewed by The Inquirer want the school to stay open, but many complain that top administrators and the five-member board of Turkish scientists and businessmen who control the school keep them in the dark and provide misleading information.
The Inquirer reported last spring that federal agencies are investigating whether some Turkish charter-school employees are required to kick back part of their salaries to a Muslim movement founded by Gulen known as Hizmet, or Service, according to knowledgeable sources.
They also are trying to determine whether the schools are abusing the H1-B visa program, which has allowed hundreds of Turkish teachers, administrators, and other staffers to work in charter schools.
The visas are used to attract foreign workers, especially with math, science, and technology skills for which there are shortages of qualified Americans.
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