Some practices questioned at Baldwin charter school
Rachel Kail, 9, of Baldwin Township takes a peek at her new school Young Scholars Charter School of Western Pennsylvania in Baldwin Township on Aug. 26. At left, is her sister Joelena, 5, who also attends the school. Classes started Thursday.
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As a nurse who works at a health center in the refugee haven of Prospect Park in Whitehall, Rachel Majcher sees globalization every day, and she wants her daughter to get a worldly view in kindergarten.
So when she heard that an international charter school was opening in Baldwin Township, she jumped at it.
"To hear that this school was going to start not only one, but two languages in kindergarten, was a big selling point," said Ms. Majcher, as she sat outside of the Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania Charter School at a preschool-year picnic last month. "We want our kids to be in this kind of environment."
The environment the school touts is one in which students with foreign roots can learn about American life, while local kids get a global perspective. It's a pitch similar to that made by scores of charter schools nationwide that are run by Turkish educators.
Some of the schools have logged track records of academic success, but their business practices have drawn scrutiny. In Pennsylvania, there has been overlap between the boards of the schools and a separate, nonprofit company from which they lease their buildings, and an out-of-state contractor got the no-bid job of renovating the Baldwin facility.
Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania board President Melih Demirkan said there are no formal ties between his school and other Turkish-led charter schools.
But there are connections. Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania Charter School CEO Alpaslan Ozdogan previously served as dean of academics at a similar Central Pennsylvania school. The buildings in which the Baldwin and Central Pennsylvania schools operate are rented from the same nonprofit corporation, called Dream Schools -- an entity in which Mr. Demirkan has served as an officer.
School officials denied reports spurred by one former parent-group leader that the Central Pennsylvania school was a subject of FBI interest, and said the schools have no ties to a controversial Turkish scholar who lives in the Poconos.
"Yes, we are coming from a foreign origin," said Mr. Demirkan, adding that everyone involved is in it for the good of the kids. "This school is for people who want a diverse environment and to acquire foreign languages."
"The Turkish," he added, "are good at education."
The Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania Charter School opened Thursday, four days later than scheduled because of a building inspection glitch. It is housed in a former school building on Newport Drive that was later converted to an assisted living center. The school opened with about 125 students, with two kindergarten classes and one class of 20 students each in grades one-five; its capacity is about 140 for those grades.
The base of support for the school during its charter application process came from Turkish-Russian refugees from the Baldwin-Whitehall School District -- 150 wrote letters in support -- including some in the Prospect Park complex.
But the school is not drawing the majority of its students from there, school officials said. Of the total enrollment, 59 students are from the Pittsburgh Public Schools, 35 are from Baldwin-Whitehall and the remainder come from districts that include Bethel Park, South Park, Chartiers Valley, Keystone Oaks and Mt. Lebanon, Mr. Ozdogan said. Just 12 are studying English as a second language.
The school day starts at 8 a.m. Two foreign languages -- Turkish and Spanish -- will be taught in the afternoon. Mr. Ozdogan said the school families chose the languages.
The school's promotional literature refers to its "gifted and talented program," but Mr. Ozdogan said there will be no formal pull-out gifted program as exists at public school districts, where students are tested for eligibility to participate. At the Young Scholars charter school, all extra academic activities will be open to all students. Many will be conducted during the school's free after-school enrichment program.
Classes will end at 3:30 p.m., but students can stay for additional activities until 5:20 p.m., Mr. Ozdogan said.
The school is running on a tight budget that relies almost entirely on the tuition it will get per student from their home school districts. Teachers earn about $33,000 per year, and Mr. Ozdogan's salary is $65,000.
The model for the charter school is the 6-year-old Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School, near State College. It was created to accommodate professionals coming from abroad to Penn State, and American students interested in international matters.
The Central Pennsylvania school now serves 200 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, and has logged standardized test scores that are above the middle of the pack among Centre County schools in math, and among the top schools in that county in English. Among charter schools statewide, it ranked in the top eight of 118 schools, in both reading and math scores.
"These scores have been achieved when we are teaching our students Chinese and Spanish every day," said Levent Kaya, CEO of the Central Pennsylvania school. The Turkish language, he said, is an elective at the school.
Mr. Ozdogan was the Central Pennsylvania school's math teacher and dean of academics before taking the job of CEO at the Western Pennsylvania school.
"He is an extremely hard worker," said Mr. Kaya, noting that Mr. Ozdogan created an advanced math program that has some students starting algebra and geometry in sixth grade. "He developed a terrific relationship with parents."
The administration didn't get straight A's from every parent.
Ruth Hocker, who sent her children to the Central Pennsylvania school because of its international bent, said administrators were "pushy about Turkish culture. ... The school hosted a Turkish night and the children participated in a Turkish dance club and there was a Turkish cooking class and after-school Turkish language classes."
Mr. Kaya said the near doubling of the school's student body proves that it has made most parents happy.
Ms. Hocker led a group of parents who pushed for more information on teacher qualifications and said she talked to federal investigators about teacher hiring practices.
Mr. Kaya said his school "has not been contacted by any federal agencies regarding any type of investigation into our school."
The two schools share a landlord: a nonprofit corporation called Dream Schools whose board members have included leaders of both of the charters. Such an arrangement could present conflicts of interest, a legal expert said.
Dream Schools was created in 2006 by Riza Ulker, formerly director of the private, Islam-focused Snowdrop Elementary School in Monroeville. Dream Schools owns the Central Pennsylvania school directly, and the Western Pennsylvania school through a subsidiary.
Mr. Ulker was simultaneously on the boards of Dream Schools and the Central Pennsylvania school. He has also been the principal of the Turkish-led Philadelphia-area Truebright Science Academy Charter School and was involved in founding the Allentown Science Academy and the Camden Charter School of Achievement in New Jersey.
Mr. Ulker could not be reached for comment, and doesn't appear to have a role in the Western Pennsylvania school. Two other people, Bulent Tarman and Omer Gul, served simultaneously on the boards of the Central Pennsylvania school and of Dream Schools.
Mr. Gul, a State College chemist, said he quit the Dream Schools board in July because he was busy, but remains on the board of Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania. He said he has children at the school, and accepted invitations from the administration and Dream Schools to join their boards.
"I consulted [with an attorney] if there would be any conflict of interest, and I found out that there wouldn't be," he said, adding that he was motivated only by a desire to improve education.
When people serve on the boards of two organizations that do business with each other, that presents a conflict of interest, said Douglas Branson, professor of business law at the University of Pittsburgh.
He said any transactions between two corporations -- including nonprofits -- with overlapping directors should go before the organizations' full boards. Conflicted directors should reveal their relationships, then leave the room. The fairness of transactions should be outlined in board minutes.
Mr. Kaya said that if "business is discussed by the board where there is a financial interest of a board member, that member will be asked to be excused from the discussion and any voting that might occur." He added that there is no longer any overlap between the boards of the Central Pennsylvania school and Dream Schools.
Dream Schools in 2010 charged $310,200 in rents, eking out a $37,111 surplus after expenses, including $45,693 spent on wages. Its current president, Hasan Ozcan, said Dream Schools has one employee, whom he declined to name.
Mr. Ozcan runs Nema Food Co., a McKeesport firm that sells meat prepared consistent with Islamic teaching. He has no formal role with either school. He said his role in Dream Schools is voluntary.
Mr. Demirkan was the treasurer of Dream Schools in 2008 and 2009, according to tax records. He was not part of the Dream School board in 2010.
He said that when the Western Pennsylvania school was unable to raise money to buy the building it sought, he approached Dream Schools for financing, and the corporation raised the $800,000 purchase price.
He said the Western Pennsylvania school's board discussed the lease contract at its Aug. 3 meeting, but said minutes of that meeting weren't available.
The school's budget indicates that it will pay $176,000 a year in rent, plus funds for utilities and maintenance. That seems to reflect a healthy but not outlandish return on Dream Schools' investment, said a real estate professional who was given outlines of the transaction.
Because the building is owned by a private entity, its renovation was not subject to the competitive bidding rules that bind public schools, including charters.
Building permit records show an estimated renovation cost of $182,000, and indicate that Dream Schools brought in as principal contractor CNC Design Build. That New Jersey firm is co-located with Celik Brothers Construction, a firm listed in the New York Turkish Yellow Pages that has brought over workers from Turkey.
"There are people of Turkish origin. Does that matter?" Mr. Ozcan said. They were hired "because of the price and their references. It would be ridiculous to choose someone because of national origin.
Parents and students gathered for the Aug. 26 picnic said they are concerned only about getting a better education for their children than that offered by local public schools.
Tom Beemsterboer said his fifth-grade son is going to Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania because of the two languages and the pledge to urge students into science competitions and other extra activities. "They're pushing them," he said, "to be more than run-of-the-mill."
First Published September 4, 2011 12:00 am