L-A charter school would have no religious focus, leaders say

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AUBURN — An architect of the proposed Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School told Maine Charter School Commission members last week that the school, and the Massachusetts school it’s being modeled after, are not “Gulen” schools and would not teach Turkish culture or Muslim religion.

The state charter commission was also told during the Feb. 7 public hearing that the proposed L-A school has been narrowed to four locations, including one on College Street. The Maine Charter School Commission will vote at a March 3 hearing in the Department of Health and Human Services Building at 35 Anthony Ave. in Augusta on whether the school can open.

If approved, the taxpayer-supported charter school would be built this summer and would open in the fall to 180 students in grades 7-9. The school would be a prep school focusing on math and science. State and local education dollars, about $10,000 per student, would follow the students as they have to other charter schools.

Published reports have said the proposed Lewiston-Auburn school and the Pioneer Charter School of Science in Everett, Mass., have ties to the Gulen network, which has followers of Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, according to Wikipedia.

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The applicant of last year’s proposed Queen City Academy Charter School in Bangor, construction company owner Murat Kilic of Revere, Mass., helped found the Pioneer school in Massachusetts.

The Queen City charter school, which published reports said had ties to the Gulen network, was rejected by the state commission in 2013 due to financial concerns. Kilic told the Portland Press Herald last year that he had read Gulen’s books and met with him twice, but said it’s the school board that carries the mission.

Controversy about the proposed Lewiston school and ties to the Gulen network has swirled to the point that during the public hearing, Maine Charter Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapointe held up a thick yellow folder.

Looking at Huseyin Kara, the chief development officer at the Pioneer school, Lapointe said her folder was stuffed with emails “referencing a connection of Pioneer to the Gulen movement and the Turkish (leader),” Lapointe said.

“Other Gulen schools have had to explain how and why their staff is hired (with Visas),” she said. “They’ve had to explain kickbacks, money taken out of teachers’ salaries and given to the companies that helped with the visas, companies that received contracts from Gulen schools without proper bidding process, the schools may teach and promote Turkish culture, and that Islam is taught in the schools.”

Lapointe asked Kara to respond. “I want to hear it from you,” she said.

Kara did, offering similar answers to questions raised during a Feb. 4 Sun Journal interview.

“First, Pioneer Charter School of Science is a Massachusetts public charter school, not a Muslim school, not a Catholic school, not a Gulen school,” Kara said. “The school we’re proposing here will be a Maine public charter school. It has no affiliation with anybody or any group, or any religious, ethnic, social, cultural group or organization, I want to make that very clear.”

There is “a lot of stuff” about ties to Gulen in blogs, newspapers and websites, because he and other board members, administrators and teachers in the Massachusetts Pioneer school are Turkish Americans, Kara said.

The preacher Fethullah Gulen is a well-known, public author and speaker, Kara said, but he wasn’t there to talk about Gulen “because I cannot describe myself as a representative.”

To call the Pioneer school and the proposed Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School Gulen schools would be inaccurate, he said.

The charter school in Massachusetts does teach the Turkish language as an elective, he said. The school also teaches French and Spanish.

“But teaching religion is definitely not in our program,” Kara said. “It’s a public school funded by public money. There’s no cultural, ethnic or religious influence in our programs.”

Commissioner Heidi Sampson said she had looked at a large number of introductory letters to charter schools from around the country.

“You’re saying Pioneer is an independent school and Lewiston-Auburn is going to be essentially a sister school,” she said.

But the connection between the charter schools “seems to be rather obvious when you start looking at identical welcome letters,” Sampson said. “Maybe a few words are rearranged, but the welcome letters from all of these Turkish schools are essentially the same. Can you speak to that?”

Kara talked about charter schools in Cleveland, Ohio, and Syracuse, N.Y., which had the same founder. Kara said he worked for a Horizon charter school, then a charter school service provider in New Jersey and finally the Pioneer charter schools in Massachusetts. He said the “similar documents” are “coming from these (schools) sharing.”

Other questions from commission members:

Q: Where would the school be located?

A: Applicant Tarlan Ahmadov said he’s working with the Charter School Development Corp., a nonprofit charter school organization in Washington, D.C., that will own and lease the building to the charter school.

“We’ve identified 10 land options, and we have narrowed down our options to four,” Ahmadov said. One is on College Street, a mile from Geiger Elementary School. The other sites, which he did not name, are four or five miles from downtown Lewiston.

If the school is approved, land will be bought, a construction company hired to build a modular school that will be assembled in Lewiston-Auburn in six to eight weeks. Ahmadov said they expect the building to be ready in August.

Q: What if the building is not ready in time, where would the students go to school?

A: “We don’t foresee that,” Ahmadov said. If the building is not done on time the school will look for classrooms to rent temporarily. There are contingency plans, he said.

Q: Have any of the proposed agreements been reviewed by an attorney representing the governing board?

A: The charter school board does not yet have an attorney on board but will get one.

Local board member: Charter school needed to help more students aspire

AUBURN — During a Feb. 7 public hearing on the proposed L-A Academy Charter School, local board member Fatuma Hussein was asked to explain her definition of good education, as it relates to bringing the charter school to Lewiston-Auburn.

Hussein, of United Somali Women of Maine, introduced herself as a mother of six who immigrated to the United States in the 1990s. She has a daughter in college, a daughter in high school, three sons in elementary school, a preschooler and another child on the way.

“I do believe in higher education,” Hussein said. Many of the children of immigrants need extra help in English, math and science. Some of the children came from refugee camps and didn’t have educational opportunities, she said.

Not enough of those students are succeeding to the point they’re getting into top colleges, she said. “I have nothing against community colleges; they’re great.” But too few immigrant students do not “get to a place like Harvard or MIT,” she said

The charter school, which would offer longer school days, a longer school year and tutoring after school and on Saturdays, would provide more help, she said.

She used her daughter to illustrate her point. Her daughter graduated from Edward Little High School, got accepted at 11 colleges and is a student at Georgetown University.

But her daughter would not have gotten into Georgetown “without us (providing) the extra education that she needed,” Hussein said. “We had to invest in a lot for my daughter to get high SAT scores,” she said. “All children should have that.”

Saying more students should aim higher, Hussein said she sees the proposed charter school as “bringing that vision. Not that other schools are not bringing that vision, I’m very respectful of Lewiston schools; I’m very protective of Auburn schools. I’m not saying they’re not providing good education, (but) I believe in options when it comes to education.”

Other board members of the proposed charter school who attended the Feb. 7 public hearing are:

Tarlan Ahmadov: the primary contact, works as a program manager for Catholic Charities Maine Refugee and Immigration Services in Portland.

Huseyin A. Kara, chief development officer at Pioneer Charter School of Science in Everett, Mass.

Mustafa Guvech, an engineering professor at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. At the Feb. 7 public hearing, Guvech said his engineering program doesn’t have enough students from the Lewiston-Auburn area.

Kathie Turnipseed, retired professor at the University of Southern Maine.

Board members listed in the 800-plus-page application who did not attend the public hearing are:

Christine Richards, veteran Lewiston teacher.

Bruno Yomoah of Auburn, public school teacher teaching English as a second language. His children attended Auburn public schools.

Jenifer Lloyd, worked for more than 20 years as performing arts instructor, teaching dance and acting in Southern Maine.

Two other board members, one who serves the board in legal matters and the other in finances, are not yet appointed.

For more information:

* http://www.maine.gov/csc/

* http://www.sunjournal.com/news/lewiston-auburn/2014/02/07/charter-school-foes-fans-testify-hearing/1489363

* http://www.sunjournal.com/news/lewiston-auburn/2014/02/04/lewiston-charter-school-hearing-feb-7/1487095.

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