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Turkish charter schools growing as some question cleric ties

EVERETT – A group of Turkish-born educators running Everett’s Pioneer Charter School of Science is poised to open another school, adding to a growing number of math- and science-focused charter schools across the country operated by Turkish-Americans.

Last Friday, Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester recommended that the state approve a second ­Pioneer school for grades 7 through 12, which would open in the fall in Saugus and serve more than 300 students. Chester did not endorse Pioneer’s other application for a similar school planned for Woburn. Pioneer’s two proposed schools are among 11 charter school applications the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will vote on at its Feb. 26 meeting.

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“Our success is based on hard work,” said Barish Icin, the school’s executive director. Pioneer’s school year is 200 days, or 20 days longer than the public school academic year. The school offers Turkish as a language option and in the past has offered an after-school Turkish dance club, but otherwise shares, according to Icin, the same mission as the state’s other charter schools.

“We get our students ready for college and the competitive workplace ahead,” Icin said.

While Icin said Pioneer is a home-grown school with no ties to other educational institutions, its oper­ation is similar to dozens of other Turkish-led charter schools around the United States. Common practices by the schools ­include spending public funds to obtain H1B temporary visas for foreign-born teachers and using some of the same vendors, headed by Turkish ­natives. Several of the staff and board members have also been affiliated with other Turkish-run charter schools across the country, ­either before or after they worked at Pioneer.

The similarities have served as a red flag for some Massachusetts educators, who have asked whether the schools are linked to Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam. Gulen, who fled Turkey more than a ­decade ago for the United States and now holds permanent residence status in Pennsylvania, leads a movement of millions of people who have embraced his modern interpretation of Islam.

At a December hearing about the proposed schools, ­Peabody High School guidance director Antonio Braganca ­asserted that the Everett charter school was inspired by ­Gulen. At the hearing, a ­Pioneer school official flatly ­denied the statement. In an inter­view, Braganca questioned the movement’s direction and how it might affect students in the classroom.

‘My two kids have gotten everything they need out of the school. It’s a different atmosphere than the regular public school.’

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While Gulen has preached the power of education and has promoted the building of schools around the world, some blogs, including a few with a xeno­phobic slant, have suggested a more nationalistic motive.

Over the last year, The New York Times and “60 Minutes” also linked Gulen to approximately 120-plus Turkish-led charter schools around the country. The Pioneer school was not mentioned.

Gulen could not be reached for comment, but in a 2008 US immigration document he acknowledged that “the principles of the Gulen Movement are the foundation for hundreds of schools established in North America, Europe, and Asia.”

In an interview at the ­Pioneer school, Icin denied any connection to other Turkish-led schools in the ­United States or to Gulen. “There is no Gulen influence in the school whatsoever,” said Icin.

Since it opened over five years ago, Pioneer, which serves a predominantly African-
American and Hispanic population, has emphasized math and science as a gateway to college and a career.

The Pioneer school in Everett outpaced the state average and the local district in every spring 2012 MCAS test in every grade, in terms of the percentage of students scoring in the proficient or higher categories. Pioneer’s average SAT scores lagged about 10 percent behind the state average, but exceeded the district’s.

At the school, parents are ­focused on academic achievement. “My two kids have gotten everything they need out of the school,” said Stacie Witkus. “It’s a different atmosphere than the regular public school. It’s a smaller setting, and that’s good.”

But Pioneer’s operation is unusual in many respects from the dozens of charter schools that have been approved in Massachusetts in recent years.

Since it began in 2007, ­Pioneer has hired 16 teachers with temporary visas, according to Icin. Accord­ing to school records obtained by the Globe, the school spent $84,215 in public funds on legal and immigration-related fees for temporary visas and also to help four staff members obtain permanent residency status. Only four of those temporary visa holders, out of the current 34 full-time teachers, remain at the school now, according to Icin. All of the visa holders are from Turkey and teach math, science, and computer science.

Icin said the foreign teachers were hired because there is a lack of educators in the area who can teach math and science. “Some positions are not easy to fill, especially math, science, or technology,” he said.

Paul Toner, president of the 110,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, disagreed with Icin’s assessment. “I certainly don’t feel there’s a shortage of math, science, and technology teachers here, and there’s no justification for spending public dollars to bring in teachers from Turkey,” said Toner, whose union has been a critic of charter schools.

A Globe review of public documents has found several links among the Turkish-run schools, including shared Turkish-­run vendors, such as Apple Educational Services, which has been paid more than $128,600 for consulting work to Pioneer. The New Jersey company, which provides every­thing from a school database to MCAS training, has also posted enrollment applications for 19 of the Turkish-run charter schools, including Pioneer, on its website.

In recent years, five Turkish-run companies have won contracts from Pioneer. Those five companies have also used the same street address in ­Carlstadt, N.J. They include ­Apple Educational, Ivy Learning (owned by Apple Educational), Technotime Business Solutions, Proacademy (owned by Technotime), and Lotus ­Media. In total, those vendors received $218,646 from ­Pioneer.

Also, since 2008, Pioneer has paid New York’s Kulen law firm $40,534 for immigration-related ­expenses for its foreign-born teachers. The law firm’s founder, Remzi Guvenc Kulen, served last year as president of Peace Islands Institute, a nonprofit where Gulen is honorary president, according to the insti­tute’s website.

Some of the Turkish-led schools are also linked by language used in state applications for new schools and in its school handbooks. In its applications to the state to add two schools, Pioneer wrote: “The instruc­tional philosophy and practices constitute a paradigm shift in secondary school education from the teacher to the student.” The same exact sentence is listed in this year’s education model published by Harmony Public Schools, a Texas-based, Turkish-run public school district that oversees 38 charter schools.

In addition, Pioneer’s executive director’s welcome in its student handbook, signed by Icin, is nearly identical to student handbook welcome messages in more than 80 other Turkish-led US charter schools.

When asked about similarities between Pioneer and other schools, Icin reiterated that the school was independent. “It is a small community, and there would naturally be some common elements at schools run by Turkish-American educators,” he said.

JC Considine, a spokesman for the Elementary and Secondary Education Department, said charter schools are not ­required to award contracts to the lowest bidder.

He also said that the commissioner does not have concerns about any possible links between the Pioneer school and Gulen.

“PCSS is a high-performing school that is providing students with a quality education,” Considine said.

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@
globe.com
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