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Education

An Islamic movement, fraud and improper hires: Even more (and weirder) questions arise about Montgomery’s first charter school

Josh Moon

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When the leadership team behind Montgomery charter school LEAD Academy began putting together an application to start a school, the members knew they lacked experience. None of them had opened a charter or had experience running a school. So, they made the unique decision to turn the management of their school over to a Charter Management Organization.

Acting as a sort of central office, the CMO takes care of the daily details of running a charter school. For this hefty task, LEAD chose Unity School Services, a newly-formed group headed by Soner Tarim, the since-retired founder of Harmony Schools — a massive charter school chain that began in Texas.

But here’s where things get dicey. And where even more questions surface about the approval process that allowed LEAD to open.

Tarim is a divisive figure in the world of charter schools, and his Harmony Schools has been used as both a model of excellence and a cautionary tale for how awry things can go when you start mixing public money and private businesses.

In most of the reporting on LEAD, Tarim’s name rarely appears. In the few instances in which it does, it is usually a brief mention about Unity’s CMO role, and Tarim is ID’d as the founder of Harmony Schools.

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I became aware of Tarim’s … troubling — although that might be too strong — past and the even more troubling — and that’s maybe not strong enough — dealings of the Harmony School and the Gulen movement.

But a simple Internet search turned up a series of news reports and allegations that span from Facebook meme-level crazy to just really awful.

Among other things, Tarim’s schools have been accused of being a financial front for a religious movement centered around the teachings of a controversial Turkish preacher named Fethullah Gulen, who pushes a more moderate brand of Islam. The Gulen Network of schools, which now includes dozens of schools all around the country, were all started by followers of Gulen, who resides now in Pennsylvania, where he remains a thorn in the side of the Turkish government.

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Gulen is viewed as a radical by the Turkish government, which labeled his movement a terrorist organization. In 2016, fearing Gulen’s growing influence, Turkey hired a law firm to investigate Harmony Schools. The results, reported by the Dallas Morning News, alleged findings of discrimination, fraud, misspent funds and improper ties to Gulen.

Tarim called the allegation “ridiculous,” and said many of the findings had already been addressed or dismissed.

But those are far from Harmony’s and the Gulen Network’s only problems.

An investigation by the New York Times in 2011 found that Harmony was abusing work visas and stacking Harmony’s faculty with Turkish residents. It also found that Harmony was skirting public laws and spending public money to hire primarily Turkish contractors and workers.

Investigations of Harmony schools in Texas and Gulen schools in Ohio and Minnesota found evidence of misused federal grant money, falsifying standards and test scores, grade changing and questionable hiring practices.

Tarim and other Gulen officials have denied many of the allegations, and the Texas Education Agency cleared Harmony of most alleged wrongdoing in that state. However, numerous other allegations remain because Texas, at one point, had just nine people overseeing more than 500 charter schools in the state. (Texas charter school officials still believe in Tarim, going so far as to name him Leader of the Year in 2017.)

But the most consistent and damaging allegations revolve around Harmony’s ties to Gulen, and the hiring practices of the schools.

The NYT story in 2011 examined spending records and public data after being told by Tarim that the schools follow all bid laws and that they don’t play favorites with contracts. The Times’ investigation found that virtually all of the contracts awarded by Harmony had gone to Turkish-owned companies, and local contractors told the newspaper that they lost out on jobs even after being the lowest bidder.

Another investigation by Reuters in 2016 found that the Harmony schools were struggling financially, and noted that the Gulen schools in more than a dozen states were under investigation for crimes ranging from misuse of public funds to visa fraud.

An investigation by a Houston TV station in 2012 at Texas’ Harmony schools found multiple instances of grade changing by school faculty. And more allegations surfaced in 2015 of Harmony schools altering grades and test scores to increase achievement numbers. (The 2015 allegations were never substantiated.)

The schools’ ties to Gulen and its questionable practices also led to school officials in some states and cities to deny Gulen schools’ applications. In Memphis, for example, officials refused to approve a Gulen-backed charter school, and officials there cited its Gulen ties.

In Alabama, it’s unclear just how much work was done to determine Tarim’s role in problems at Harmony or his ties to Gulen, and whether any of that should deter LEAD’s approval. But what is clear is that state officials should have known.

A 2018 report from the Center for Public Integrity outlined the growing allegations against Gulen schools and it ID’d lawmakers from numerous states who had taken trips abroad thanks to Gulen-backed charities — trips meant to influence their approval of Gulen charter schools. In Alabama, four lawmakers took the trips, although none of them have ties to the state’s charter school board or to LEAD.

The extent of Alabama’s investigation into Tarim’s newly-formed Unity Schools company that is managing Montgomery’s first charter school appears to be a single phone call to Texas charter officials.

That call came from Logan Searcy, the Alabama State Department of Education’s liaison with charter schools. Searcy said she spoke with Heather Mauze, the director of the Texas Charter School Administration, who had nothing but praise for Tarim.

“I talked with her and she was very pleased with (Tarim) and we also reviewed their investigation into Harmony,” Searcy said. “That report completely cleared them of wrongdoing. Those were facts after an investigation, not just allegations.”

When I asked about the multiple other issues — those that didn’t arise from a foreign government’s investigation — Searcy said she didn’t personally investigate any of those, but she wasn’t sure what other Alabama Charter School Board members might have done.

If those members looked into Tarim’s background, they didn’t press him on it during LEAD’s application hearing, at which Tarim made a presentation to the board.

Searcy also made a point that Texas’ officials have repeatedly stated — that much of the backlash against Tarim stems from xenophobia related to his religion and the religious beliefs of the Gulen movement. There is evidence to support those claims.

However, there has been no evidence — or even any real allegations — that any of the Gulen schools have pushed religious beliefs of any sort to students.

Under normal circumstances, that might be enough to let it all go and give Tarim and Unity and LEAD the benefit of the doubt. Except, there’s been nothing normal at all about the process that will allow LEAD to open its doors next fall.

LEAD’s application failed to meet any of the standards for approval judged by the authorizers that the state has contracted to review charter applications. In portions, the review of LEAD’s application almost seemed mocking.

That failure was ignored by the Charter School Board, which approved LEAD’s application — but only a minority of the board would agree to the charade. That landed the process in state court, where the Alabama Supreme Court invented a legal definition out of thin air to justify allowing LEAD to open.

All of that sailed through Alabama’s backlogged court system on a rocket, going from circuit court to written ALSC ruling in mere months. Which falls in line with the rest of the process that plowed through any and all problems — no matter how real or troubling — to allow LEAD to open this fall.

And now, into that soup of problems, add one more: The guy who is supposed to be overseeing the operation of this charter school has left a pile of weird, crazy and very troubling issues in his wake. And it didn’t seem as if anyone really cared.

 

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Economy

UAH researchers and the world’s fastest supercomputer join the fight against the COVID-19 virus

Brandon Moseley

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More and more of Alabama’s brainpower is being redirected into fighting the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Dr. Jerome Baudry is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Dr. Baudry and his lab are involved in a project that is using the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit supercomputer to examine compounds to fight the virus that has already killed 34,807 people as of early Monday morning.

The compounds under review include drugs already available with safe profiles, as well as natural products. Compounds identified as possible future drugs will also be studied.

“We are at this point focusing on repurposing existing drugs,” Dr. Baudry said. “That is, to take existing drugs from the shelf and find which ones are active against either the virus itself or can help in treating or mitigating the effects of infection in the severe cases.”

Dr. Baudry said that about 30 researchers are involved in the project, and are working around the clock. The group is studying how the virus ticks, including how it expresses proteins, for clues on how to defeat it.

“We can use high performance computers and supercomputers to look at the entire genome of the virus, see everything the virus’ genome is making and build computational models of all these proteins, and repeat the repurposing process for each of these proteins,” Dr. Baudry said.

Scientists in the group are starting with some proteins on the surface of the virus in an attempt to prevent it from infecting human cells.

“We are also looking at some of the proteins that allow the virus to replicate itself when it is inside the human cell in order to block this process, a bit like for many anti-AIDS drugs,” Dr. Baudry explained. “But we will expand to pretty much everything in the virus’ genome that can be targeted by a drug.”

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Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s 200 petaflop supercomputer allows researchers unprecedented access to solving this and some of the world’s other most pressing challenges.

Researchers have a databases about virtually all existing drugs, natural products or molecules that may not have been tested yet as drugs. There are thousands of them. Then they build virtual models of these compounds using the laws of physics and chemistry to calculate their composition and arrive at a very detailed computational description.

“Then we look at the virus’ genome,” Dr. Baudry said. “We have to build models for all the virus’ proteins, again describing all the atoms, their properties, how they move together, etc.”

The supercomputers then compute how the atoms of a possible drug will interact with the atoms of the virus’ proteins.

“It’s like doing a test tube experiment to see if a possible drug will bind to the protein, except that we perform this in a virtual test tube using our computers,” Baudry explained.

Economic developer Dr. Nicole Jones explained to the Alabama Political Reporter, “Researchers across Alabama are working around the clock to assess potential treatment for the novel COVID-19. The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) and Dr. Baudry are using technology, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit supercomputer, to examine compounds from safe, existing drugs as well as natural products. Repurposing existing drugs is a strategy that can expedite the process if a potential cure or treatment is found. The drugs are already on the shelf, why not test them to see if they can be useful? The high performance computers and supercomputers allow researchers to examine the entire genome of the virus and how it reacts. UAH’s latest announcement is another example of the brainpower we have in Alabama and our state’s commitment to combating this pandemic.”

UAB, Southern Research Institute, Hudson Alpha, and Alabama biotech firms are also working on finding drugs that will treat COVID-19 as well as hoping to develop a vaccine to prevent it.

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Education

Working to educate Alabama’s kids when they aren’t in a classroom

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Board of Education have said Alabama’s children will not be returning to their classrooms on April 6, but they will be returning to their studies.

“Beginning at the start of school on April 6, 2020, all public K-12 schools shall implement a plan to complete the 2019-2020 school year using alternate methods of instruction as established by the State Superintendent of Education,” Ivey announced.

The education community is trying to figure out exactly what this means.

“Learning must continue,” former State Representative Perry O. Hooper Jr. said. “We have an obligation to our students to provide them with the means to continue their education during this pandemic.”

“Beginning April 7th School Districts, under guidance from the State Department, must develop study plans for students and have the means to assess what learning occurred,” Hooper added. “Districts must offer online or paper-based instruction based on available resources.”

There was an assumption by many that this would mean a shift to E-learning. The Alabama Political Reporter, however, has been told that there are problems with implementing that strategy.

Veteran Jefferson County educator Lara McClendon told APR, “My kids don’t have devices.”

Without their own computers or smartphones, kids can’t access E-learning even if the school were to suddenly start live-streaming classes to them in their homes.

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Brian Rhodes is president and owner of BBB Educational Enterprises Inc., a Birmingham based education company.

Rhodes said that if 650,000 Alabama school children all go online at the same time with live streams from their schools there isn’t enough bandwidth to handle it, especially with their parents all working from home clogging the internet infrastructure.

“The pipeline can’t handle it,” Rhodes warned.

APR asked what about kids without internet access or the child whose internet is accessed in his or her mom’s car from the parking lot of a McDonalds or library.

Rhodes predicted that they would struggle to keep up.

The crisis has exposed the state’s lack of broadband.

“Shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak, Alabama cable providers rolled out no-cost and low-cost options for high-speed internet access to the state’s students and low-income populations hit hardest by closures and other impacts of the virus,” ACBA Executive Director Michelle Roth said. “These efforts include offering free broadband and Wi-Fi access for up to 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students, extending low-cost broadband programs, opening Wi-Fi hotspots for public use, eliminating disconnections of internet service for customers having difficulty paying, and increasing internet speeds universally.”

APR asked Rhodes if you ‘Can you hold back a child who was passing all of his classes when school ended because he does not have internet access.

“I don’t think you can,” Rhodes said. “Not if he was doing well before.”

Rhodes did believe that the schools could continue to give grades during these eight weeks of at-home instruction.

Another option that was discussed was sending home a stack of worksheets for the children to work on at home with some printed out lecture materials.

Rhodes said that is what he thought many systems would do, but predicted that worksheets alone without that interaction with a teacher would be insufficient for kids reading skills to improve during this period of social distancing.

McClendon said that school systems often ration the copies that a teacher can make and charges teachers who print off more than the rationed amount.

APR asked if the teachers have pupil supply money left to pay for materials during this crisis.

Some do, most have already spent it on materials for their classroom,” McClendon said.

Rhodes proposed actually sending books to the kids.

“The key thing is getting something in the kids’ hands,” Rhodes said. “We have got to get books out to kids.”

APR asked how much this would cost.

“Three or four $7 or $8 books and would only cost about $40,” Rhodes said. “I am not talking about a lot of money, with a bag to put them in maybe $50 to 55 a kid.”

APR asked, If you send books home, is there a danger you won’t get them back?

Rhodes said that was no problem. Let them keep them as the start of their own home library.

Rhodes’ plan would be to do this for every kindergarten through second graders and K-3 if there was enough money and that each school system should pick the books that best match the skill levels of their students as well as their own cultural issues. The teachers would then give assignments from the books as well as lead online small group discussions on the materials. Rhodes suggested that the legislature pay for it with a supplemental appropriation.

APR asked McClendon if this proposal would help.

“In some systems, it probably would,” McClendon said.

“It’s my belief that teachers need to be in contact with families on a regular basis,” Hooper said. “Teachers must help students set goals. Furthermore, School Districts should reach out to all available resources both public and private.”

Rhodes said that it was important to get buy-in from parents. Give them instructions and goals, but don’t make it too complicated.

McClendon said that her students understand the technology.

“We do google classroom all the time,” McClendon said. “It’s the parents who don’t understand the technology.”

APR asked: what about the kid in the third grade who reads at a first-grade level?

“Any of our kids who are struggling readers will” fall further behind no matter what we do Rhodes said. “They need one on one with a teacher. You are never going to be able to get that with this. The variations are too great. “The technology is not sufficient.”

McClendon predicted, “Everybody is going to be behind.”

APR asked if the school systems would encourage teachers to work from home as much as possible or would they require the teachers to report to their school building despite the virus risk.

“I don’t know what they are going to do,” McClendon said.

APR asked McClendon if the teachers would benefit from a special influx of pupil supply money to pay for the costs of materials for home learning.

“Yes they would,” she answered.

“Congress must step up to the plate and offer financial assistance to k- 12 education much like the congress is doing for large and small businesses in this time of crisis,” Hooper said.

APR reached out to U.S. Senator Doug Jones (R-Alabama) to see if federal resources were available to address the unexpected costs of suddenly transforming the way the state educates it’s children by this time next week.

A spokesperson for Sen. Jones said the Congress has provided for relief for school systems in the stimulus, “The Phase III deal provides money for an Elementary and Secondary Education School Emergency Relief Fund. According to CRS, Alabama should be getting roughly $216.9 million. That will go to the state then be distributed to school districts.”

The coronavirus stimulus passed the Senate on Wednesday, was passed by the Senate on Friday and then signed by President Donald J. Trump.

“We also must learn from this experience,” Hooper said. “Every state and every school district should have contingency plans developed for every possible disruption to classroom learning. We did not see this coming. Its shame on us if we are not prepared for the next national emergency. Vice President Pence has called the teachers who continue to interact with students remotely American heroes.”

The Alabama public schools sere 744,845 students in 1,530 public schools.

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Education

Alabama community colleges online for rest of semester

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama’s community colleges will continue with online classes throughout the remainder of the spring semester, and commencement activities are postponed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Alabama Community College System announced the extension of online-only classes Friday.

College campuses remain closed to public gatherings. 

“Every decision concerning the operations of Alabama’s community colleges is being made with the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff, and administrators at the forefront,” said ACCS Chancellor Jimmy Baker in a statement. “While we couldn’t have imagined what this semester would look like for our colleges, I am incredibly grateful for the creativity, resilience, and commitment to learning shown by our faculty, staff, and students during this difficult time.”

ACCS colleges will offer summer courses, but it’s unclear whether they’ll be conducted in-person or online.

ACCS is awaiting guidance from local, state and federal officials before making that determination.

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Education

Resources for parents educating kids at home

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced what most people were already expecting and that is the children will not return to school in the 2019-2020 school year.

The responsibility for education now falls entirely to the parents of the state.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has led the Governor to close the schools to protect the health of the children. The move protects the children of Alabama from catching COVID-19, but it creates enormous challenges for their education. The schools are supposed to reopen sometime in August, but even that is in doubt at this point.

While no one wants Alabama students and their families to get sick, they also need to learn the skills that they were supposed to be learning in school. Eight to nine weeks of instruction are now effectively lost for all time.

This is a challenge for parents who want their children to be all they can be, but it also allows parents to take more control of their children’s education than the public school format allowed.

The Bible can serve as a reader. That might not be ideal; but reading is like learning to shoot a basketball, hit a baseball, or ride a bike it takes practice. Set time aside every day for reading. Whether the internet is available or not, reading out loud is a useful way to improve a child’s reading skills and allows the parent to gauge the child’s skill level.

Another time tested resource is the Dick and Jane reading series. Generations of children have learned how to read with this widely available series of books that are available in almost any bookstore and at some Wal-Marts.

There are a plethora of books available for beginning readers. The best known are the Dr. Seuss books. There is more information as well as activities at their website:

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Math is an area where parents probably need to focus efforts on. The Alabama public schools are notoriously bad at teaching math. In recent standardized testing of fourth and eighth graders, Alabama scored last among the 50 states.

Math facts are best memorized and flashcards and math bingo games are useful resources to have to improve basic math skills. Multiplication, addition, subtraction, and division tables can all be printed out and written and rewritten over and over again. Counting out money and making change is another skill that can easily be taught at home and at the grocery store.

There are also online resources available including:

As children advance into higher grades and study: long multiplication, long division, integers, fractions, the metric system, geometry, algebra etc. is probably takes a textbook. Those can also be bought as e-books and as workbooks. There are many online resources also available.

Many students need speech and language therapy, which they get at school. Unfortunately, the children aren’t in school so don’t have access to those resources. This site provides a list of links to those services to children that need them.

NASA is providing educational education plans for kids on their website during the forced national economic shutdown.

Teaching a love and appreciation for history also sharpens reading comprehension skills and makes for better citizens. There are many history resources available.

The Georgia Public Broadcasting System has resources for teaching Black History.

The Alabama Bicentennial Page has Alabama History resources.

Alabama Public Television has many resources to help parents transition to becoming parent and teacher on their website.

Teaching your children yourself also adds the benefit of being able to teach and share your faith. Many Churches offer online resources for parents eager to educate their children. With most Churches having shut down their Sunday schools and Parish Schools of Religion (PSR)for fear of COVID-19 the only religious education about faith and God will likely come from the parents during this time.

Catholic Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville recommends for children: “Teaching Catholic Kids.”

The site has arts, crafts and activities for home & school inspired by faith as well as a long list of links for parents looking for lessons and activities for their children as they shelter in place.

Alabama based EWTN also has resources for parents during these times on the website.

Landmark Baptist Church is offering their own home school curriculum.

Gov. Ivey has ordered Alabama’s many school systems to come up with a plan for the home learning program by April 6. What that will be and what value that will have, if any, no one knows at this time; but will likely vary wildly from system to system. E-Learning would be one option, but many Alabamians do not have broadband; thus the fear is that by adopting an E-learning program would result in the haves – those with broadband and a caring parent excelling while the have not – those with no broadband and a lackadaisical uninvolved parent would fall further behind.

No one knows when school will begin and what that will look like when it does happen, but it will take a commitment on the part of parents and students to continue to build educational achievement during this crisis.

 

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