Math-science charter proposed in Loudoun, modeled on school with Turkish connection

A group of Loudoun County residents is seeking permission to open a charter school in 2013that would fill growing demand for an intensive curriculum in math and science in grades six through 12.

The Loudoun proposal, which is pending before the Virginia Board of Education, is patterned after a math-science charter school in Anne Arundel County that offers Turkish-language classes and has other connections to Turkey. Established in 2005, that school boasts some of the best standardized test scores in Maryland.

But the Anne Arundel school, Chesapeake Science Point, had to fight to keep its doors open this spring after Anne Arundel Schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell and his staff detailed alleged management problems, including consistently negative cash flow, that have dogged the school since its founding.

Now, supporters of the proposed Loudoun Math and IT Academy are being asked to address the concerns raised across the Potomac River.

“It just seems like problem after problem after problem, and they weren’t minor,” Winsome E. Sears, a member of the Virginia Board of Education, said of the Anne Arundel school at a June 28 meeting on the Loudoun plan.

“How can we ensure that we don’t have these same problems?” she asked.

The Loudoun applicants wave aside questions about the Anne Arundel school, saying that it has a clear record of satisfying students and parents and producing high achievement in science, technology, engineering and math — the fields known collectively as STEM.

“We need more choices in Loudoun,” said Ali Gokce, a father of two who serves on the governing board of the proposed Loudoun school. “With the U.S. losing its edge on science and math education, parents want more rigorous STEM education.”

The state board could vote on the proposal as early as July 26. If it is approved, the plan will then go to the county school board for a final decision. Applicants hope to open the school in 2013.

It would serve almost 700 students in grades six through 12.

The school could be the first charter in Northern Virginia. Another charter proposal is pending in Fairfax County.

Like Chesapeake Science Point, the Loudoun effort is led primarily by scientists, educators and busi­ness­peo­ple of Turkish origin who say theirs is a successful school formula.

At the Anne Arundel school, teachers make home visits to connect with families and offer free early morning and weekend tutoring. Students are encouraged to accelerate through the math and science curriculum, taking high school-level math courses while still in middle grades.

They also have the option of taking Turkish-language classes and visiting Turkey with their teachers. They routinely participate in the Turkish Olympiad — an international contest in poetry, singing and folklore — as well as local and national competitions in science and math.

“I believe we were able to put together a very strong community over there,” said Fatih Kandil, a former Chesapeake Science Point principal who is now part of the Loudoun group.

“I think that is what the secret is,” he said.

Criticism in Anne Arundel

In Maryland, as in Virginia, local school boards ultimately decide whether charter schools — publicly funded, privately run institutions — may function.

When Chesapeake Science Point’s charter agreement came up for renewal this spring, Anne Arundel school officials expressed reservations about its business practices.

The superintendent’s staff said the school had ill-equipped science labs and cafeteria facilities, hired an unusually low proportion of fully certified teachers, and used county construction grants to pay operating expenses, among other issues.

The Anne Arundel staff also questioned the transparency and fairness of the school’s lottery system, used to determine which students will be admitted each year. A staff analysis of testing and enrollment data found that the school enrolled a higher-than-average proportion of students who were proficient or advanced in reading and math.

Parents and students rallied to the school’s defense, showing up in droves to testify during a six-hour school board debate.

Its supporters said the Anne Arundel school was a tight-knit community where students felt free to be smart and work hard. “A nerd fortress,” one sixth-grader called it fondly.

School officials said they were blindsided by the negative review and had been given too little time to respond.

They denied most of the allegations and said any cash flow difficulties were the fault of Anne Arundel officials, who had failed to give the charter school the tax dollars it should have received, based on enrollment. In June, Chesapeake Science Point’s governing board sued the county’s school board for more than $700,000.

The Anne Arundel board voted June 6 to renew the school’s charter. But it imposed a number of requirements, including that the school reconstitute its governing board; revamp its lottery system; and comply with school system policies on competitive bidding and employment of foreign nationals.

Asked by the Virginia board to explain the Anne Arundel problems, Kandil said the complaints were unfounded. The former Chesapeake Science Point principal said Anne Arundel officials had painted a skewed picture that didn’t jibe with the school’s strong academic performance.

“The climate over there is actually not strong on understanding of the charter school practices across the nation,” Kandil told the Virginia board.

“The outcomes are not justifying the allegations or accusations, and I think outcomes talk loud and clear,” he said.

Turkish-connected charters

More than 120 charter schools nationwide are led by Turkish immigrants, analysts say. Some scholars and critics believe that many of these schools are connected to Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric who lives in the Pennsylvania Poconos.

Gulen preaches religious tolerance and math and science education. His followers run hundreds of schools around the world, scholars who track the movement say. Several U.S. schools thought to have ties to Gulen have come under scrutiny from state and federal officials over issues such as reportedly giving preference in contracts to Turkish-owned companies.

Leaders of the Anne Arundel school and the Loudoun charter proposal say they are not affiliated with Gulen. “We are just human beings trying to educate our students, and that’s all,” Kandil said.

Christian Braunlich, a member of the Virginia school board, said he had heard allegations of a Gulen connection to the Loudoun proposal but had no reason to believe them.

The Loudoun proposal would require all students to complete at least one information- technology career certification, such as in Microsoft or Cisco networks.

“That’s going to be so critical for our future job market,” said Sharon Inetas, a Loudoun businesswoman who serves on the proposed school’s governing board. “Maybe we can keep our kids here, keep our community.”

Eric Hornberger, chairman of the Loudoun school board, said the Anne Arundel debate would undoubtedly come up if the proposal advances past the state board.

“You have to weigh all these things carefully and thoughtfully,” Hornberger said. “But just because another school system or another school has a problem doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be the same in Loudoun County.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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