Saturday, February 25, 2017
Despite struggles Gulen Schools in New Jersey try for 2 more new schools.
A group of charter schools, which arose from North Jersey’s Turkish community and has established a large and growing footprint in the state, has had both success and struggles.
The schools, with a strong focus on math, science and technology, have been praised by officials and parents as places of innovation and have earned a strong reputation with long wait lists to enroll in the schools via their annual lotteries. But while some of the schools are diverse, two have been accused in a federal civil rights complaint of enrollment practices that keep out disadvantaged students.
Charter schools operate independently of regular public school districts, but are funded by tax dollars.
Gov. Chris Christie visited three of the schools last year, including the Bergen Arts and Science Charter School in Hackensack, where he praised the school’s use of technology in the classroom.
"I'm here today because I want people to know about the extraordinary work and accomplishments being done here every day by you and your teachers," Christie told students and faculty during his visit in May.
The governor also visited the Thomas Edison EnergySmart Charter School in Somerset in May, where he touted the strong academic performance but failed to acknowledge criticism over the school’s enrollment practices. Education officials ordered the school one year ago to develop a plan to improve diversity when he approved a renewal of the school’s charter agreement.
Both the Thomas Edison school and Central Jersey College Prep Charter School, also in Somerset, a section of Franklin Township, are the subject of a federal complaint filed this month. The complaint alleges that they discriminate in their enrollment, and that they educate fewer students who are low-income, who have disabilities and who are learning English.
The Latino Coalition of New Jersey and Franklin C.A.R.E.S., a parent advocacy group, are calling for a federal and state investigation.
Both schools have denied allegations of discrimination and said the complaint was part of an effort “to harass” and “to shut down” public charter schools.
State test data show schools in Bergen and Somerset counties have performed better than statewide averages, as did middle school students at a charter in Passaic city. Schools in Paterson fell below – but they outperformed their home district.
One of the schools, the Paterson Charter School for Science and Technology, landed on probation for nearly a year in 2006 and 2007. Its continuing “weak academic performance” was cited by a Standard & Poor’s credit analyst in lowering the overall outlook on debt associated with the school’s facilities.
The school, which opened in 2003, had previously been investigated by the state and cited for staffing and financial issues, including hiring teachers without proper certification, possible no-show employees, tenure violations and improper payments of immigration fees.
The ratings agency downgraded the school's bonds in October 2014, citing both financial and academic issues, falling "far below" academic standards in some areas.
A second action by the agency, in February 2016, revised the outlook on the bonds from "stable" to "negative.'' A report at the time cited "weakened" cash levels that violated the terms of the school's bond agreement with the state and required the hiring of an outside financial consultant.
A school official, responding to questions from The Record, blamed a drop in state aid and one-time expenses associated with opening a new school for the financial weaknesses. The official, Riza Gurcanli, said that the school continues to operate on a "tight budget," and that the overall fund balance for the 2015-16 school year was positive.
Critics claim the schools are part of a nationwide network of at least 100 charter schools that are tied to the Gulen movement.
In some states, so-called Gulen schools have been investigated for improper bidding practices that steer contracts to Turkish-owned companies, misuse of a visa program to bring teachers from Turkey, and improper use of a federal grant program. Charters in Ohio and Louisiana were raided by the FBI.
The growing New Jersey network, however, has received kudos from many parents and politicians.
Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, who has visited two of the charter schools at their invitation, said they provide an alternative for families who may seek a small-school environment in a diverse setting.
“It gives kids a chance in a school with different cultures and languages. They learn and respect each other’s customs,” he said.
“If the students coming out of these schools are prepared to go on to the next state in their education, then that is a good service,” he added.
Joshua Hendrick, the assistant professor of sociology at Loyola University Maryland who wrote a book about the Gulen movement, said some of the schools have been under investigation over their operations and finances. But many of the schools, he said, are thriving.
“For every one under investigation, there are 10 or 20 more that couldn't be more successful,” he said.