Charter schools use Turkish ties, visas to get teachers

-HorizonScience01.jpg_20140724.jpgCincinnati – by James Pilcher

Horizon Science Academy in Bond Hill has the usual classrooms, books and lessons to teach kids seeking an alternative to regular public and private schools.

The charter school also employs seven foreign teachers, mostly from Turkey, brought to the U.S. on H-1B visas for jobs it says Ohio teachers are unqualified to fill.

Concept Schools, founded by followers of a Turkish Islamic cleric secluded in the Poconos, already is under federal and state scrutiny for possible irregularities in teacher licensing, testing and technology contracts.  

An Enquirer investigation has found that Chicago-based Concept Schools, which runs Horizon and 17 other charter schools in Ohio, annually imports dozens of foreign teachers in numbers that far surpass any other school system in the state.

At least 474 foreign teachers, again mostly from Turkey, have arrived at Concept’s Ohio schools between 2005 and 2013. The schools are collecting about $45 million in state funds annually to educate 6,600 children in kindergarten through high school.

Critics say H-1B visas were designed to help companies temporarily employ highly skilled foreign workers in biotechnology, chemistry, engineering and other specialized fields – not K-12 teachers.

The Ohio Department of Education is weighing complaints from former Concept staffers that unlicensed, foreign teachers were used.

Ohio teachers, meanwhile, say plenty of qualified teachers are available for jobs being filled by the foreigners, especially since about 40,000 are still without teaching jobs because of the recession.

Concept officials defend the practice. They say it’s the only way to find qualified math and science instructors, adding that the international teachers add to the cultural experience of students.

“These teachers are hired legally and are here legally,” company vice president Salim Ucan said. “It’s not like we’re sneaking them across the borders. These are highly qualified people who have gone through the legal process to come here and make a difference in the lives of kids.”

Academically, Concept students perform no better or worse than children at the nearly 300 other charter schools in Ohio.

Ten of the Ohio Concept schools – more than half – received Ds on the state’s most recent performance index, a measure of how many students passed key achievement tests.

Horizon Science Academy was one of the schools getting a D.

Other districts use H-1B visas, but not so many as Concept

H-1B visas have been around for nearly 50 years, created as part of a major immigration overhaul in 1965.

Essentially, they’re work permits allowing foreigners to live in the U.S. for three years so long as they’re employed by companies in positions pre-approved by the U.S. Labor Department, State Department and Immigration and Customs Service.

Contrary to popular belief, most employers don’t have to prove that there is a shortage of qualified U.S. workers to apply for an H-1B visa.

Each visa can be extended three years for a total of six.

After that, a worker must obtain permanent residency status through a green card application, gain U.S. citizenship or return home.

The U.S. issues about 85,000 H-1B visas per year. Nearly 2,300 were issued for Turkish immigrants in 2012-13, an Enquirer analysis of U.S. State Department data shows.

In Ohio, at least 80 other public districts or private schools used H-1B visas between 2005 and 2013, including Cincinnati Public Schools and systems in Columbus, Akron and Cleveland. Those districts each use about one or two immigrant teachers a year, primarily to teach language skills. CPS hired one teacher using an H-1B visa in 2007.

Concept, on the other hand, this year employs 69 teachers on H-1B visas in Ohio – about 12 percent of its teaching staff. Almost all came from Turkey, and the few who didn’t originated from surrounding countries.

“Concept may or may not be bending any rules, but the rules were written poorly in the first place,” said Ron Hira, an immigration policy critic and professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. He shared with The Enquirer federal H-1B data he obtained from the Immigration Department through an open records request.

“It seems clear from the data that these schools are favoring H-1B workers from a single source country, Turkey,” Hira said. “American workers, as well as foreign workers from other countries, did not have a legitimate shot at getting these jobs.”

Concept’s Ucan acknowledged that Concept targets Turkish workers, but only because “we’re from Turkey, and that is where we have comfort.”

“The founders of this organization are Turkish and are established Turkish-Americans,” said Ucan, who said he originally came to the U.S. on an H-1B visa and is now nearly finished applying for U.S. citizenship.

“Because of that relationship, it is much easier to recruit from Turkey. It would be much more difficult to go to China or other countries because we do not have the relationships here.”

The use of H-1B visas for teachers has proven problematic elsewhere.

A criminal investigation is underway in several suburban Dallas school districts for immigration abuses involving H-1B teachers.

Maryland’s Prince George’s County banned the practice after its school system was fined $1.7 million and ordered by the Labor Department in 2011 to repay $4.2 million in back wages improperly withheld from H-1B teachers.

“Not every employer or the program itself is problematic, but there have definitely been abuses,” said Denise Gilman, co-director of the Immigration Clinic and law professor at the University of Texas.

Many students have trouble in conventional schools

Cincinnati’s Horizon Science Academy sits in a converted small college building near a major industrial center in Bond Hill. The school is clearly sectioned off to separate upper and lower grades, older and younger students.

About 88 percent of this year’s 448 students students are black, and 5 percent are Hispanic.

More than 91 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, so the school provides free breakfast and lunch to all students.

Like all charter schools, Horizon is run by a private company using state funds diverted from the local public school system. Many charter students have trouble learning in conventional public or private schools. Others seek an alternative to public schools, which may have their own performance or discipline issues.

Some parents at Horizon say they sought out the school for its emphasis on math, science and technology.

The school opened as an elementary school for the 2004-05 academic year, just four years after the Ohio General Assembly approved the use of charter schools. It soon expanded to include a middle school and then a high school.

The school interior appears bright and clean. A well-equipped computer lab features several desktop PCs, 30 laptops and 30 iPads. Separate art classes are decorated with the kids’ latest work, with well-supplied baskets surrounding the rooms.Almost all the classrooms are equipped with electronic smartboards, a touchscreen version of a chalkboard.

Administrators and parents say strict discipline is enforced – highlighted when a line of kindergartners and first-graders held their fingers over their mouths in the “shhh” pose all the way back to the classroom after a visit to the restroom. On a separate visit a day later, police forcibly removed one student while another parent came by to pick up another troublesome child.

Coy Johnson of Bond Hill said the school sent his 5-year-old grandson home after a fight in class, a disciplinary action he supported. “And when you have small classes like they do here, it makes everyone feel involved,” Johnson said.

School officials say Horizon’s low test scores reflect the “transient nature” of the student population.

“We don’t turn any kids away, even the ones that aren’t really wanted elsewhere,” said Michael Bidwell, the school’s instructional coordinator. “Some of these kids have been at multiple schools, sometimes within the same school year. But we’re not going to give up on you.”

Difficult students can prove a challenge to incoming Turkish immigrants such as Yasin Kusan. The first-year high school math teacher is originally from western Turkey, but moved to the U.S. this summer from a different teaching gig in Papua, New Guinea, with his wife and 9-month-old baby.

“The type of students are tough in terms of discipline,” Kusan, 30, said through a moderate accent. “I didn’t know what to expect. I was disappointed by the economic level of the students, but I am trying my best not to let it hinder me … especially considering the life standards of where I came from.”

Like most of the Concept immigrant teachers, Kusan and fellow Turkish colleague Bilal Urkmez are younger and male. Most of the Turkish teachers are assigned to high schools or technology classes; Americans primarily staff the elementary grades, Ucan said. Both men paid their own travel expenses to the U.S., while Concept paid the nearly $1,000 in fees for the visas.

“It has always been my dream to teach,” said Urkmez, 29, who is in his second year as a high school math teacher at Horizon Cincinnati. “My models were my teacher and my father, who was also a teacher.”

Questions over licensing, reassigning H-1B immigrants

The glowing reports are not universal.

In May and June, the FBI raided 19 Concept charter schools, offices and other businesses in at least four states, including the Cincinnati Horizon and three other schools in Ohio. The raids came as part of a multistate investigation into possible financial fraud involving a federal Internet technology-funding program.

Ohio education officials, meanwhile, are weighing whether to launch a full-scale investigation into whether Concept Schools is using unlicensed foreign teachers. At a state hearing in Columbus in July, several former Concept teachers complained that some Turkish teachers were working without the required licenses.

“We’re concerned about any situation where a teacher has not received the proper licensing. That is not appropriate,” Education Department spokesman John Charlton said. “But it is incumbent on the school … to give a quality education. And if we find anything improper or have questions, we will put pressure on the appropriate organization.”

One former Concept teacher and a former administrator from a separate Concept school previously have said publicly that unlicensed teachers were common at their schools.

Mustafa Emanet said he was hired in 2006 as an IT administrator at Concept’s Horizon Academy in Cleveland but soon was transferred to teach, without a license, at another Cleveland Concept school (Horizon-Denison). That’s a potential violation of not only state education standards, but also of U.S. immigration policy. H-1B workers are normally assigned to one location, and cannot be moved or transferred without prior federal approval.

“It was pretty awful. I couldn’t even understand when the kids wanted a Kleenex or tell them to stop chewing gum,” Emanet said in an interview with The Enquirer, referring to the language barrier. He taught computer science to middle-schoolers before leaving Concept in 2009. “There was a big gap there. But it wasn’t like I could leave.”

Amy Britton-Laidman told a similar tale from a different perspective. A Cleveland native, she was hired as a secretary at Noble Academy in Cleveland in 2006, and she quickly became the school’s enrollment coordinator as well. Britton-Laidman told The Enquirer that several teachers from Turkey entered the classroom barely able to speak English, and she was told not to ask questions about it.

Later in 2011, she said she ran across an email that discussed bringing in someone to replace her, and two months later she was fired.

“I still maintain that someone’s friend needed a job, so it became my job on the line,” Britton-Laidman said.

Ucan denied those claims, saying they were made by “disgruntled former employees.”

Reclusive cleric inspires school company’s founders

Concept Schools was founded by followers of a controversial religious and social movement led by Turkish cleric Fethuallah Gulen, currently secluded in the U.S.

Through his sermons on the Internet, Gulen preaches that the way to true enlightenment and the betterment of society is through education for all, although the movement has drawn criticism for its secrecy and lack of financial transparency worldwide.

Hundreds of private schools affiliated with Gulen have been opened in countries including Russia, China and Indonesia, according to an expert in the movement.

The concept of charter schools also provided a unique opportunity in this country.

“Here, you can do it (create schools) through charter schools and use public money and thereby reduce the amount of capital you need,” said Joshua Hendricks, a sociology professor at Loyola University and author of the book “Gulen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam In Turkey and the World.”

“Now you are dealing with 27 different states with 27 different levels of oversight,” Hendricks said.

Several Concept Schools administrators and officials acknowledge a personal affinity to Gulen’s teachings, but they say that it does not influence any business dealings or the schools themselves.

Concept vice president Salim Ucan also denies any direct financial ties between Concept and Gulen.

“We are a nonprofit organization running public schools,” Ucan said. “Yes, one of the teachings of Gulen is to spread education throughout the world. And that inspired me and others to be teachers. What can be wrong with that?

“But we never let it enter the curriculum or influence what we are teaching.”

One former teacher at a Cleveland Concept school, however, has said he was forced to pay tributes under the table to the movement and was even required to visit Gulen at his residence in the Poconos in northeast Pennsylvania. Mustafa Emanet told The Enquirer of being required to pay back some of his salary in cash to school administrators during his stay between 2006-09.

Emanet was hired on an H-1B visa as an IT network administrator. But after he arrived, he said he was presented with a “secret” contract that required a tribute to the Gulen movement.

He said his initial H-1B visa called for him to be paid about $44,000 annually. When he arrived, he was told he would be making less than $30,000 a year.

Later as his pay rose, he said he was required to give up to 10 percent of his salary back to school administrators in cash as a “himmet,” or a tribute to Gulen and the overall movement.

“It got to the point where I was paying $900 to $1,000 a month,” said Emanet, who eventually got his green card and is now a software developer in the Cleveland area.

Ucan dismissed Emanet’s claims as being from a “former disgruntled employee” and says there is no such pressure or secret contracts or tributes at any of the company’s schools.

Two local Turkish teachers interviewed by The Enquirer said they have felt no such pressure and have made no such required payments. Yasin Kusan, who immigrated to the U.S. in July, said he donates voluntarily to the local Turkish cultural center when he can. Second-year high school math teacher Bilal Urkmez said he sends any extra money home to his family in Turkey.

Hendricks, who spent five years studying Gulen organizations in Turkey and in the U.S., said, “It is understood that once you are gainfully employed, you give back … and everyone gives according to their means.

“Those inside have an expression that ‘the movement reemerges from itself.’ So you see the money funneled into startup capital for Turkish businesses, as well as for cultural organizations and such. There is definitely a wealth redistribution within that community.”

Another immigration expert said federal authorities may have started asking questions after “60 Minutes,” the New York Times and other national media outlets did stories on the movement and its possible ties to Turkish-run charter school operations.

Texas-based Harmony Schools, the largest charter school management company in the U.S., also was created by Turkish immigrants and has been linked to Gulen. ■

More about Concept Schools

Charter schools are run by private organizations and funded with public money as an alternative to traditional public schools. Chicago-based Concept Schools is one of the most established charter companies in Ohio, having been created by Turkish expatriates in 1999 in Cleveland as Ohio moved to allow the creation of charter schools.

Concept has become the fastest-growing charter school operator in Ohio – growing to 18 schools from only two a decade ago. In the 2012-13 school year, Concept schools enrolled 6,329 Ohio students in kindergarten through high school, drawing about $45 million in state funding a year. Overall, it operates 31 schools in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Missouri.

Concept also is Ohio’s second-largest charter school operator, trailing only Akron-based White Hat Management. White Hat operates 29 schools in Ohio with an enrollment of 6,660 in the 2012-13 school year. That company received $53.2 million in public funding that year.

Unlike Concept, White Hat does not use H-1B visas to fill teaching positions, White Hat chief executive Thomas Barrett said. “Still, we respect the fact that each management organization or independent school has its own philosophies and practices with respect to hiring. That’s consistent with the fundamental concept of charter school autonomy,” Barrett wrote in an email to The Enquirer.

Ohio is among 27 states nationally that have some version of a charter school program. Kentucky is not one of them.


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