Tucson's Sonoran Science Academy and its sister schools import an unusually large proportion of their staff from foreign countries, especially Turkey, in a practice that parallels the customs of an important Turkish religious-political movement.
The five Sonoran Science Academy charter schools and their parent company, Daisy Education Corp., received U.S. Labor Department certification to fill 39 teaching and administrative jobs with foreigners last year, federal data show. From 2002 through 2009, the schools have received certifications for 120 H-1B visas.
That's more certifications than any comparable school in Arizona received in that eight-year period - and more than the six biggest school districts in Southern Arizona combined…
Some experts point to a different possible explanation: that Sonoran Science Academy is part of a loose global network of Turkish-run schools - 100 or more in the United States - inspired by Fethullah Gülen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. Worldwide, "Gülen schools" tend to hire teachers from Turkey and the broader "Turkic" world, including Central Asia, and their schools emphasize math, science and Turkish culture, scholars said.
"The schools are the basic avenue to build the Turkish community in America," said Hakan Yavuz, a political science professor at the University of Utah who co-authored the 2003 book "Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement."
[Principal Ozkur] Yildiz would not break down the schools' staffs by nationality or visa status, but a review of the books of résumés on file at three Tucson Sonoran-Science campuses painted a rough picture. Among 79 current and past staff members whose résumés were on file, about 32 percent were educated in Turkey, while 60 percent were educated in the United States.
The Sonoran Science Academy schools emphasize Turkish culture in a way that surprises some parents.
Turkish is one of two languages taught at the school, along with Spanish, and a semester of each is required for sixth graders, parents said. Even the preschoolers at the Daisy Early Learning Academy are taught Turkish language and customs.
Students are encouraged to compete in the Turkish-language olympics in California against students from other Turkish-run charter schools. And a trip to Europe is offered every year, which may include France, or Germany or another European nation, but always includes Turkey…
It was all a bit much for Cynthia Corrales, who graduated from Sonoran Science Academy last year.
"I understand we have people from other cultures and countries, but I mean, a whole school run by Turkish people? It was really weird," Corrales said…
Three Turkish professionals living in Tucson founded Sonoran Science Academy in 2001. One, Nasuhi Yurt, was studying optical sciences at the University of Arizona at the time.
"It occurred to us we could help in the community while I was there," he said. "We heard about this charter school idea, a couple friends got together."
The result was Sonoran Science Academy.
It may seem a singular story, but Turkish scholars, scientists and technology professionals were doing the same thing around the United States in the last decade. Harmony Science Academy was born in Texas, Magnolia Science Academy in California, Coral Academy of Science in Nevada and Beehive Science & Technology Academy in Utah, among many others.
The Turkish-run schools in the West, including Sonoran Science Academy, contract with the Accord Institute, a nonprofit in Tustin, Calif., also run by Turks, for curriculum and other services. Turkish teachers and administrators circulate frequently among the schools…
Scholars Jill Carroll and Hakan Yavuz believe the schools are all inspired by Turkish Islamic leader Fethullah Gülen and follow the model he established three decades ago.
Yavuz, the University of Utah professor, said the schools may provide excellent science-and-math education, but there is another motive to their founding.
"They think they need to create a Turkish base, a social network. They get green cards, they become citizens. They have marriages, kids," said Yavuz, who is from Turkey. "You're seeing a long-term vision of creating a more powerful Turkish community in America."…
While Yildiz denied Sonoran Science Academy is affiliated with the movement, one of Sonoran Science Academy's founders, Nasuhi Yurt, left Tucson in 2005 for Ebru TV, a Gülen movement network based in New Jersey.
Ali Unver, president of Paragon Education Corp. in Chandler - a Sonoran Science sister school - told a Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist "about the noted Turkish preacher and scholar M. Fethullah Gülen," during a dinner there in November.
When a Sonoran Science student competed in a Turkish competition in California, he recited a poem by Gülen called "Hic," a piece recommended by his teacher. A video of his performance, and those of other Sonoran Science students, can be viewed on the "Gülen Movement channel" on YouTube, and were recounted in Gülen's newspapers in Turkey.
And Gülen himself, a powerful political force in Turkey, claimed responsibility for U.S. schools in a 2007 lawsuit against the Homeland Security Department as part of his effort to gain permanent residence…
No one can knock the numbers. In recent years, students at Tucson's Sonoran Science Academy have secured stellar scores in math, science and other categories. The academy has earned glowing mentions in national magazines such as U.S. News and World Report, and in 2009, was deemed Charter School of the Year by the Arizona Charter School Association.
But some parents of children who attend the academy on West Sunset Road believe it harbors goals reaching far beyond academia. They suspect the Sonoran Academy of being part of a confederation of learning institutions secretly linked to, and advancing, the cause of Turkish scholar and Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen.
While most of those parents have resisted coming forward, fearing reprisal from an organization they say is known to target critics, one parent did agree to speak to the Weekly if we pledged to keep her identity hidden. The parent says she represents others at the academy who've become suspicious about the striking similarities of its educational programs to those of other schools around the United States which are operated by Turkish-born staff members...
Fatih Karatas is principal of the academy's middle school. He calls such claims ridiculous.
"We don't have any kind of connections or any kind of relations with that movement or group. A public school can not be affiliated in any way with other institutions or groups because of the regulations, because of the charters."
He also says his school has a diverse staff, native to countries ranging from Turkey to Mexico, which he considers a benefit. "But we're not promoting a certain ideology. ... These are defamatory allegations that are not based on any proof or evidence."
Still, the Sonoran Academy isn't the first Turkish-American-run charter school in United States to be accused of links to Gülen. Parents at the Beehive Science and Technology Academy in Holladay, Utah, have also raised concerns that their school is linked to this movement. And according The Salt Lake Tribune, one Beehive teacher was fired when his lesson plan about World War II and the Holocaust prompted a discussion in which the school's principal purportedly questioned that genocide...