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Allegations raised over N. Phila. charter school run by followers of Turkish imam

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.

English teacher Kayla Conklin (second from right) monitors the hallway during a change of classes. The school gets $3.4 million of its $3.9 million budget this year from the Phila. district.
English teacher Kayla Conklin (second from right) monitors the hallway during a change of classes. The school gets $3.4 million of its $3.9 million budget this year from the Phila. district.Read more

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.

103-page rebuttal

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.

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 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.

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.

Federal officials have declined to comment on the nationwide inquiry, which is being coordinated by federal prosecutors in Scranton.

In a recent interview, Duz insisted that Truebright was not part of any Turkish network and did not believe it was being investigated. "Truebright is a school that is run independently," Duz said.

He said the fact that 10 of the school's 32 teachers and administrators are from Turkey and have worked at similar charters across the United States does not mean the schools are linked.

"It's just like a Chinese restaurant," Duz said. "A person comes from China and starts working at a Chinese restaurant. They know the other Chinese restaurants and they can go and work at the other Chinese restaurants. It doesn't mean that they are all connected."

Poconos enclave

He declined to comment on Gulen, a major Islamic political figure in Turkey who lives in self-imposed exile in a Poconos enclave.

In 2008, Gulen obtained a green card by convincing a federal judge in Philadelphia that he was an influential educational figure in the United States and pointed to the charter schools that have been opened across the country by his followers - Turkish scientists, engineers, and businessmen.

Duz said that he didn't want to discuss Gulen because "I'm a public school employee here, and I run this school solely by the charter-school law."

However, in a 2006 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article about a proposed Turkish cultural center in Allegheny County, he talked about Gulen. Duz, who was on the center's board at the time, said members followed the teachings of Gulen, who founded a movement emphasizing education and interfaith dialogue.

After the first Inquirer article about the federal investigations was published last spring, Truebright's board hired an attorney who contacted federal authorities.

"They asked the federal agents if there is a federal investigation," Duz said. "And they said, they cannot give any information on that. Since then, it has been a year. I haven't seen any subpoena. I haven't seen any papers come to the school. . . . I believe there is no federal investigation about Truebright."

Shortly after the lawyer was hired, an e-mail ordered Truebright staff to preserve all school-related documents and e-mails. Such warnings are common when an investigation has been launched.

Current and former Truebright employees said shredded documents were spotted in the trash a few days later. After photos of the shreddings circulated in the building, a security camera that had been posted outside the business office was removed.

Copies of photographs showing shredded documents and a Turkish staffer holding a ladder while another man removed the camera were obtained by The Inquirer.

When Duz was shown the photos, he said he knew nothing about them. After inquiring, he said he learned that the business office had cleaned the shredders to put them in storage to comply with the attorney's directive. And he found three separate work orders in late March and early April 2011 to repair the surveillance system.

"We believe that a disgruntled employee who is trying to manipulate the press distributed these pictures," he said.

Truebright was in turmoil in early 2011 when Riza Ulker, the school's founding CEO, disappeared after the Christmas holidays. Board meeting minutes say that Ulker requested a leave to deal with family issues. Current and former staffers believe he returned to Turkey.

Tansu Cidav arrived at Truebright from a Gulen charter in Austin, Texas, to serve as interim head. Truebright's board subsequently hired Duz in August to be permanent CEO. Duz had been a top administrator at Central Jersey College Prep Charter School in Somerset, another charter run by Gulen followers. Cidav remained at Truebright as dean of academics and is paid $71,000.

Duz, who has a green card, is paid $115,000 to run Truebright.

He said that the school has many Turkish teachers because it does not discriminate.

"We have a process of hiring here," he said. "What we are looking at is not their nationality, not their race, not other factors. We are looking at if they are qualified to teach here or not."

Duz said that if foreign-born teachers have degrees in math and science, they meet federal standards of being "highly qualified," even though they are not certified teachers. He noted state law says only 75 percent of charter teachers must be certified. He disputed the district's finding that only 60 percent were certified last year.

An analysis of H1-B records for non-immigrant workers shows that Truebright received more than 22 visas since 2007, including for counselors and math and chemistry teachers.

Racial motive?

Documents The Inquirer obtained from Truebright under the state's Right-to-Know law show that the school spent more than $3,400 on H1-B visa application fees for employees since the fall of 2009.

Duz said he was offended by questions about the school's foreign-born staff.

"I find it hard to believe in 2012, such questions are asked," he said in a follow-up e-mail Tuesday. "I believe at least one source of yours may have racial motivation. . . . I would like to ask if the same question is asked about charter school CEOs whose employees are exclusively or predominantly African American or Caucasian."

Duz also disputed allegations at the heart of the federal probe - that foreign-born staffers are required to donate part of their salaries to the Gulen movement. "I don't think that's the case," he said.

"I don't know about the other people, but what I earn here is my money. I have two children. I have my wife. Nobody can claim anything on my salary.

"I have no control over anybody's salary. . . . I just cannot go and talk to a Christian employee here like if they donate 10 percent of their salary to a church."

Wright, president of the parents' group, says he does not care about the religious views of Turkish board members and staffers.

"We don't give a hoot what they do in their personal life, but don't do anything that will jeopardize the education of our children and inflate salaries so they can do kickbacks," he said.

After The Inquirer reported last year that records showed uncertified, foreign-born teachers were paid more than their certified American counterparts, at least nine filed discrimination complaints with the EEOC.

One American teacher said she never imagined she would be lodging a complaint in her own country alleging discrimination based on national origin.

Language issues

Duz said the school's attorneys were handling the complaints. In response to those filings, he said Truebright's board adopted a salary scale. But he said the teachers had made inaccurate comparisons.

"Across the departments you can find some differences," he said, adding, "That was based on the negotiation I believe the previous CEO was doing" to attract teachers for hard-to-find math and science positions.

Many parents and staffers say students have difficulty understanding many of the foreign-born teachers and that some of them instruct via classroom videos.

"Why do you need to hire a teacher when you just need someone to hit play?" one staffer asked.

"The main complaint from students," Wright said, "is that they can't understand the Turkish teachers."

But Duz said the school's use of free, online instructional videos in math was a teaching method and did not stem from language problems. He said he hires only teachers fluent in English.

"There is not a problem," he said.

Carolyn Driscoll, vice president of the parents' group, says her three grandsons have had no problem understanding Turkish instructors and believes they have benefited from the small classes and caring staff.

"I feel the school has done amazing things with the boys education-wise and self-esteem-wise," she said.

Driscoll said people were so worried Truebright might close that some parents cried during a recent meeting for fear their children would have to return to troubled district schools.

Like Wright, she said that some concerns could be addressed by expanding the board to include members who represent parents, teachers, and students.

Driscoll said: "I just don't want anything to happen to the school."