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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.

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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.

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.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Analysis | There’s a better plan for reopening schools — if Alabama leaders will use it

Josh Moon

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Maybe there will be a plan for reopening schools after all. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is set to meet with Gov. Kay Ivey’s staff on Tuesday morning to discuss an ambitious and comprehensive plan to reopen Alabama’s public schools that would see every school in the state get a new, stand-alone nurses station, a testing machine, a full-time nurse and tools to test and check students’ temperatures. 

The plan, known as the Safely Opening Schools Program, or SOS, was put together by the Alabama School Nurses Association and has the backing of several doctors and the Alabama Education Association. It was presented to some lawmakers earlier this month. 

State Sens. Jabo Waggoner, Jim McClendon and Bobby Singleton — two top Republicans and the highest-ranking Democrat — have since submitted requests for funding out of Alabama’s portion of CARES Act money to pay for the various components of the plan. 

In a letter sent last week to Ivey, Singleton said he was “excited by the plan,” and believes it will “address, to some degree, the inequity (in his local school districts) and allow my constituents to feel that they are receiving the same support to reopen their schools as the more affluent districts of our state.”

The SOS program contains, essentially, three pieces: Building 500-square-feet nurses stations/isolation rooms at every school, purchasing testing machines and supplies and hiring approximately 300 nurses for the schools around the state that are currently lacking one. (Every school is technically required to have a school nurse, but the systems have circumvented that requirement by allowing a district nurse to cover multiple schools.)

In total, the plan is projected to cost roughly $150 million — almost all of it (around 90 percent) coming from the nearly $2 billion in CARES Act funds provided to Alabama by the federal government. (The remaining portion is projected to be covered by other grants.) Included in those costs are the nurses’ salaries for two years and the construction of more than 1,300 stand-alone nurses stations/isolation rooms — each costing a little less than $50,000. 

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In addition, each school would receive its own testing device, which nurses would be trained to use, and testing supplies. If used as the program projects, Alabama schools would turn in more than 500,000 tests in nine months, with blind results being sent to the Centers for Disease Control for data collection purposes. The testing machines can also be modified to test for other ailments, such as the different types of flu.  

To put the total cost in perspective, the state has already spent at least $150 million — it received $115 million in grants from the CDC and received part of the more than $450 million the federal government sent to Alabama earlier this year — to test less than 10 percent of the state’s population over the last six months. 

The SOS program could potentially test between 12-15 percent in far less time, and in a setting where early detection could prevent massive hotspots. 

It’s a good program, and it would likely be worth the costs if only for the things mentioned. 

But those things are only half of the benefits of this program. Maybe not even half. 

Consider this: Included in the costs, every school in every city in Alabama, regardless of income level or parental involvement or poverty rates, will get a state-of-the-art nurses station and a fulltime school nurse. 

To care for children who rarely see any sort of healthcare professional. To diagnose the early signs of disease or mental health issues. To spot the early warning signs of physical abuse or drug addiction. 

In every school in Alabama. For two full school years. 

“This is extremely important to my communities, as they lack school nurses and other critical health access,” Singleton wrote to Ivey. “The opportunity to have testing/screening on-site and nurses to address students’ health needs would be of tremendous assistance to the residents in my district.”

The same could be said for school districts, and for school children, all over the state. 

The simple fact is there is no better plan offered for reopening Alabama’s schools. The others, including the “roadmap” presented by state superintendent Eric Mackey last week, mostly fail to account for known shortages in teachers, staff and nurses, and they offer no assurances for worried parents. 

The SOS plan would take the burden of monitoring and quarantining sick students off the staff and faculty, would establish a clear protocol for dealing with the virus in our schools and would assist the state and federal government with accurate, real-time data. In addition, it could be a health lifeline for kids in rural and impoverished areas. 

There is no better plan.

 

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State releases plans for expected school reopenings in the fall

Micah Danney

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Schools are expected to reopen at the start of the school year but rules will vary by district and by school, with guidelines and recommendations from the Alabama State Department of Education instead of a mandated statewide plan.

Remote learning will be key, said State Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey on Friday. Many parents around the state want it, especially for children with medical conditions, he said.

The Department of Education plans to build out a statewide remote learning system that includes WiFi hotspots and a learning management system that makes lessons, tests and teacher correspondence accessible on smartphones.

As many as 80 percent of parents polled in some counties said they want to keep their kids at home when school starts, Mackey said, so fully remote learning will be an option for those who want it.

There is no deadline for districts to report their individual plans to the state.

Contact-tracing will be an important tool to prevent outbreaks and keep students and staff safe, said State Health Officer Scott Harris. Measures taken seasonally to prevent the spread of flu will become routine procedure, with stricter cleaning regimens and quick response to possible symptoms of illness.

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The most important screening begins at home, the officials said. Parents will need to check temperatures and watch for early symptoms.

Mackey said that some things will need to change more than others. Athletic competitions can go on with social distancing measures in place, like spacing out students on the sidelines and spectators in the bleachers. 

Activities like choir practice will need to adjust more creatively due to the higher risk of contagion that comes with packing students together to sing for long periods of time.

Small groups will be preferable to large gatherings. Outdoor activities are better than indoors. Shorter events are safer than longer ones. Congestion in hallways and at choke points like school entrances should be mitigated. Such will be the guidelines and recommendations that individual facilities will consider.

Harris said he was confident that the department’s approach is a good one, but said that decisions are being made according to present circumstances. Cases are increasing daily, he said. He stressed that the public’s behavior moving forward is critical.

“The decisions we make every day will determine how this turns out,” Harris said.

The Alabama Education Association issued a statement that approved of the state’s deference to local decision-making.

“With AEA’s strong presence in every school district in the state, AEA will be there when those plans are drafted and make sure student and educator voices are heard in the process,” said AEA President Sherry Tucker. “The health, safety, and success of students and educators are top priorities for AEA. We welcome parents and other community leaders to join with us as we move forward.”

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AlabamaWorks Governor’s Survey deadline extended one week

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AlabamaWorks and the Alabama Workforce Council announced on Thursday the deadline for responses to the Governor’s Survey of Employer Competencies — a new tool to survey business owners in different sectors and regions and identify current, in-demand occupations and the credentials of value aligned to those occupations — has been extended one week and will now close on Friday, July 3.

“This survey is vitally important as we continue in our ‘Strong Start, Strong Finish’ education and workforce initiative,” said Gov. Kay Ivey. “We remain committed to our post-secondary attainment goal of adding 500,000 highly skilled employees to the workforce by 2025, and this survey will help us clearly identify the in-demand careers and associated skills that will help us develop the necessary competency models needed to reach that goal and provide quality opportunities for Alabama’s citizens.”

The majority of jobs lack specification regarding the necessary skills required to perform the job and, as a result, the bachelor’s degree has become the default certification for most jobs that require a postsecondary education. Identifying the skills, knowledge, abilities and attributes needed to succeed at in-demand jobs will prepare Alabama’s workforce for the future. 

The Governor’s Survey of Employer Competencies will be conducted annually to assist the 16 Technical Advisory Committees of the Alabama Committee on Credentialing and Career Pathways with their work of linking credentials of value to one or more specific competencies and then sequencing competencies to build the DNA for a career.

“The AWC has consistently engaged in and supported efforts regarding credentialing,” noted AWC Chairman Tim McCartney. “The future of workforce in Alabama will be highly impacted by these efforts to establish clear career pathways that are built upon the skills and knowledge shown to be in the most need and provide the highest value for employees and employers across the state.”

 

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Jacksonville State considers renaming Bibb Graves Hall

Eddie Burkhalter

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As municipalities and schools across the South grapple with monuments devoted to the Confederacy post-George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer, Jacksonville State University looks toward its own Bibb Graves Hall, named for the former governor and Klu Klux Klan member. 

Matthew Reeves, a 2020  graduate of JSU, started an online petition Saturday calling on the university to rename the building, built in 1930, and which houses the school’s administrative offices. 

Reeves told APR on Wednesday that after talking with a friend at the University of North Alabama about that school’s own Bibb Graves Hall, he decided to do something himself to enact change locally. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, 3,072 people had signed his petition, including one person who in a comment on the petition welcomed the change. 

“From a  person of color considering this college in the future, it would make me feel more included,” the person wrote. 

Reeves suggests the school consider renaming the building after Barbara Curry-Storey, JSU’s first black student and a 1969 graduate of the university. 

In a post Monday to the university’s Facebook page, acting JSU President Don Killingsworth Jr. wrote about the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, and about the possibility of changing the name of campus buildings. 

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Two weeks ago today, George Floyd breathed his last breath. We have all watched in horror as the video has been replayed again and again in national news. Our hearts are broken for his family,” Killingsworth wrote. “What happened to him and what continues to happen to Black men, women, and children across our nation is appalling and unacceptable. We recognize that this event, along with many others, is disturbing to so many, especially our Black students and colleagues.” 

Killingsworth said JSU will establish a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Center to address racism and to work to help the campus community “broaden understanding of our diverse experiences.” 

“JSU’s administration is aware of the conversation taking place on social media regarding the names of certain buildings on our campus. Please know that we hear you,” Killingsworth said. “The administration has appointed a special task force of students to further address the building names in conjunction with the Student Government Association President. According to the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, we must obtain State approval to change the names of buildings more than 40 years old on state property.” 

Reeves said Killingsworth has been good about listening to students’ concerns, and that he believes Killingsworth is headed in the right direction, but that it’s important to continue to hold the administration accountable. 

“We’re gonna stay on top of it and make sure that it really happens,” Reeves said, adding that there’s a JSU Board of Trustees meeting in July that he’s certain himself and a group of former and current JSU students will attend. 

The University of Alabama System’s Board of Trustees recently approved the removal of three plaques honoring Confederates, and appointed a group of trustees to review and study the names of buildings on all UA System campuses. 

Similar petitions urging building name changes have been signed by current and former students at the University of Alabama and at Auburn University. 

“I think it’s a great first step. Obviously, we have a long way to go, and changing the name of a building or taking a statue is not going to end racism,” Reeves said. 

But perhaps doing so will open doors and lead to more substantive change, he said. 

JSU acting President Don Killingsworth’s full statement: 

“Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

“Two weeks ago today, George Floyd breathed his last breath. We have all watched in horror as the video has been replayed again and again in national news. Our hearts are broken for his family. What happened to him and what continues to happen to Black men, women, and children across our nation is appalling and unacceptable. We recognize that this event, along with many others, is disturbing to so many, especially our Black students and colleagues.

“Members of the JSU family have shared the pain they are feeling because of Mr. Floyd’s death. Let us be clear: Jacksonville State University values Black lives. We stand firmly against the harm and injustice people of color continue to face, and we are committed to addressing systemic racism through actions we take individually and as an institution.

“A timely opportunity for JSU to continue to address social injustices is upon us. In February, a group of faculty, students, and community partners applied to the Association of American Colleges and Universities to participate in a summer institute on “Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation.” JSU was notified in March that we were approved to participate, and we will be moving forward with this opportunity. As a part of this initiative, JSU will establish a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Center and will collaborate with the community to work to dismantle racism. This center will work to help the campus community broaden understanding of our diverse experiences.

“JSU’s administration is aware of the conversation taking place on social media regarding the names of certain buildings on our campus. Please know that we hear you. The administration has appointed a special task force of students to further address the building names in conjunction with the Student Government Association President. According to the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, we must obtain State approval to change the names of buildings more than 40 years old on state property.

“While there is no way to erase the harm our faculty, staff, and students of color are experiencing, please know that JSU offers resources to help you seek care and support. Faculty, staff, and peers, please encourage your students, colleagues, and friends to seek resources and help from these university services and staff:

“Students may seek assistance through the JSU Counseling Center by requesting counseling services or by calling 256-782-5475. The center is staffed by individuals steeped in knowledge of counseling those who have experienced racial trauma, and they are glad to offer assistance to anyone affected by the recent events.

“The Associate Dean of Students, Josh Robinson, can help with student advising and referral, and he will inform students about options and resources for getting the help they may need. Contact the Dean of Students Office at 256-782-5491.

“Employees who are interested in talking to someone should reach out to the JSU Human Resources Office at 256-782-5007.

“Several individuals have asked about giving a gift in memory of George Floyd. JSU has created a new scholarship with management by JSU’s Black Alumni Chapter, which will select recipients. If you are interested in making a donation to this scholarship, please click here, scroll down in the Fund Designation section, and choose Black Alumni Chapter Endowed Scholarship. Choose the In-Memory option and fill out that section.

“JSU is beginning the recruitment process for a Diversity and Inclusion administrator. The person in this position will be another resource for the campus community and will assist the institution in fostering a sense of belonging for all students, faculty, and staff.

“Finally, please know that we are here for you and will work tirelessly to ensure an inclusive, safe, and welcoming environment for the entire JSU family.

Sincerely,

Dr. Don C. Killingsworth, Jr.

Acting President”

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