Method of establishment of schools
Page created June 2010; last updated Nov 4, 2012
In each geographical area, the establishment of Gulenist charter schools tends to follow the same pattern.
Initially, a team that includes at least one local university-affiliated Gulenist mathematician or scientist (professor, graduate student, etc) or other professional (doctor, etc) prepares a charter school application. The application will usually be an amalgamation of material from previous applications used across the country, sometimes with the text reworded, but sometimes with large chunks simply copied verbatim. While states vary in their required formats, the application is always built around the same basic template.
Gulenists often enlist non-Gulenist community members as part of this founding team, for example former school board members or professionals who help to make the application look credible. Sometimes they are individuals who have been involved in a past controversy; Gulenists like to work with people who have vulnerabilities as it makes them easier to control. It is not difficult to find someone willing to be a pro forma board member (that is, without having any real say in the project). Gulenists essentially offer them the opportunity of adding "charter school founder" to their CV, without the need to do any time-consuming work in formulating the school plan or writing the application. Of course there may also be those who join the project out of sincere conviction that it is a good idea. All these additional co-founders are useful for lending a local "face" to an application that might otherwise be conspicuous for having founders that are all Turkish or Turkic/Central Asian. The local co-founders also bring the benefit of their network of contacts in the community.
A more recent twist, in response to growing public awareness of the Gulen connection, has been to hire PR firms or consultants to serve as spokesmen for the application. It can be assumed that they are required to sign non-disclosure agreements.
The application is presented to the public as the original idea of this founding team, in response to inadequacies of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) preparation of students, or the need to give parents more educational options. The team may be described in press releases and statements as "a group of" "local" concerned "parents," "educators," and professionals. No reference is made to the fact that extremely similar schools have already been established in other areas, and that the school blueprint was not created by the team of applicants on their own.
Before the application is formally submitted to the authorizing agency, the Gulenists have already worked hard for months to lay the groundwork. Gulenists living in the area work to form ties with the community. The prospective charter holder corporation may join the local chamber of commerce (Loudoun Math and IT Academy is an example) to gain access to a network of possible supporters. Letters of support are requested from people with whom personal ties have been made. Gulenists realize that once a face-to-face relationship is established, many individuals will write a letter of support simply out of friendship or courtesy, without necessarily truly being passionate about the idea of the school. Some individuals, when asked to write a letter to support a charter school that has a mission of improving science and math education, will feel it is a worthy cause, but even those who are not captured by the concept will find the request totally innocuous-sounding.
Preparation activities also include soliciting signatures on petitions, letters or support, or pre-enrollment forms from parents in the community. Here again, Gulenist diligence and hard work pays off. Parents are told about the importance of STEM education at community meetings, and how the new school will offer a rigorous curriculum and many opportunities. Parents are in most cases completely unaware of the vast organization and network of existing schools that lie behind the proposed new school. Parents who sign the "pre-enrollment" forms, indicating that they have serious interest in the school, are not necessarily intending to actually enroll their child. However, all these signatures are collected and used at the time the charter application is presented to the authorizer.
Organizations may also be solicited as partners. Again, they have no idea that the application is not locally initiated. They are drawn in by talk of improving educational opportunities for the community, how our nation is "falling behind" in STEM education, or how the school will prepare students for the local workforce.
The school will have a website (often with pre-enrollment forms but no names whatsoever) and will advertise in local newspapers and other venues long before the application is even reviewed.
In some cases, authorizers can see from the applications that some of the Gulenist would-be founders have previous involvement with charter schools in other states. The Gulenists always stress that there is "no connection" and that the new effort is "completely independent."
Gulenist petitioners encounter varied reactions to their charter school applications, depending on the charter authorizer. Sometimes they are approved at the first try, sometimes they are rejected. In some states where it is possible to appeal a rejection at the state level, they invariably do so. This happened, for example, in the case of Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania YSWP), now operating in the Pittsburgh PA area. The petition first went to the Baldwin-Whitehall school board, which rejected it by an 8-to-1 vote in 2010. The Gulenists then appealed to the State Department of Education, which overturned the local district's decision. It should be borne in mind that local school boards are elected by the community, and thus must respond to community needs. State education agencies are more distant, and often make the decisions on political grounds (they want to show that they are approving more charter schools). In the case of YSWP, since the school still had to be funded by the local district regardless, the state had nothing to lose by approving the school. Gulenists are acutely conscious of these political dynamics and know how to exploit them.
In presenting their charter applications, Gulenists have even been known to threaten school boards by saying they will sue if their application is rejected.
Nevertheless, rejections are not uncommon, as can be seen from the list of 102 known failed attempts (there may be more that have not been identified yet). This does not discourage the Gulenists, however. The Gulen Movement has a very long-term vision, and knows that patience and persistence can overcome most obstacles. In communities where applications failed initially, Gulenists try again and again, year after year. Often the subsequent attempts involve different petitioners, or an altered school name, even though the underlying application does not change much. Authorizers may not always be aware of the previous attempts. Sometimes Gulenists catch the right political moment, such as in the case of the Triangle Math and Science Academy, where the application's review coincided with a time when a very pro-charter legislature was exerting tremendous pressure on the school board to approve new charter schools, regardless of quality.
Once the school's charter is approved, the composition of the board of directors tends to gradually change. Non-Gulenists who were used for the application phase are often replaced by Gulenists, who are most often ethnically Turkish. One or two of the most compliant non-Gulenists may be kept on board; they may attend official board meetings but will have essentially no effect on the school's operations.
The school devotes much attention to the small team of students coached for math competitions, and to the robotics club (while most of the student body is in classes with an unimaginative, ordinary curriculum. Special needs students and lower-performing students are often neglected. This conserves resources for the students who generate good publicity and the most loyal parental support - the small group of award-winning students.) The school uses various tactics to try to recruit or retain students who are on average higher-performing than those in surrounding schools.
The flagship school quickly achieves recognition through apparent high performance on standardized tests and through a select small group of students winning awards in robotics and math competitions. The school strategically issues press releases after each competition. Parents are sent emails after every school success, no matter how incremental.
Another key strategic policy of the school is to require the teachers, especially the Gulenist ones, to stay at the school later than normal and to work on Saturdays. The school makes a point of publicizing its after-school and Saturday "tutoring." The choice of the term "tutoring" is strategic even though it is a misnomer - in nearly all cases, the students are not truly getting a one-on-one session, but are simply attending what is essentially a study hall or extra worksheet session. All teachers are also required to take charge of at least one after-school club. The point of all this activity is to give the parents the impression of extremely dedicated, hard-working teachers. In actuality, the teachers may be putting in the extra hours in a perfunctory manner; for example, they may "supervise" the after-school club by simply sitting in the room and grading homework. Creating an impression of hard work and extra effort is very important, though, because it is offered as a main explanation for the school's higher test scores. It also helps builds up a small base of loyal parent supporters.
Yet another tactic is to hire a few of the most supportive parents. These individuals can continue to pose as "parents" when they make public statements strongly supporting the school, but of course they also have a financial interest.
After a couple of years the flagship school becomes established, and the scientists or mathematicians who initially lent their academic credentials to help found the school move on to their careers. Gulenists who are more deeply involved in the Movement take their place. Some of these individuals may have four-year degrees in a science field, but their focus is on business. They start the process of growing the regional chain. The focus on applying for new schools increases each year. The reputation of the flagship school is constantly exploited in the formation of the newer schools, which often are of lesser quality.
As the school chain becomes more established, the Gulenists become more aggressive about pursuing their true non-educational goals.
Layers of administration are added, each receiving a cut of the schools' funding. A regional administrative organization is set up, and as much of the school's administrative business as possible is transferred to this organization. This organization is run by Gulenists and only serves the Gulenist schools. It also serves to help keep all the member schools in conformity with the Gulenist master blueprint for all the schools.
This evolution process is accompanied by continual efforts on the part of the administration to establish relations with local school regulatory officials, local government officials and local community leaders. Such influential people are invited to school events, and the administration is constantly arranging meetings with them. Administrators at the school and other Gulenists make numerous campaign contributions to local, state and federal officials and candidates, all aimed at building up a strong support base that can be used whenever concerns are raised about the schools.
While irregularities and violations occur in all Gulen schools, the extremely lax supervision of charter schools means that as long as they garner awards and show good test scores (never mind how or why) they are left alone. In a few lucky cases, local authorizers have actually monitored violations and even withdrawn their approval of the charter. For example, Tulsa Public Schools, after years of trying to get Dove Science Academy to comply with the law on issues such as special education, finally terminated Dove's charter. This was not the end of the story, though. Dove promptly went authorizer shopping (this was possible because Oklahoma, in common with a number of other states, allows multiple entities to authorize charter schools). Langston Hughes University turned out to be happy to rubber stamp the charter, no probing questions about special education asked.