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Islamic links to Utah's Beehive Academy probed

Published: Tuesday, June 1 2010 1:35 a.m. MDT

Students at the Beehive Academy walk out of classes May 6 to protest the decision to shut down their school.

August Miller, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — By all appearances, it was a half-hearted attempt at a school protest. About 50 students huddled together, looking uncomfortable as they nervously debated, in hushed tones, just how far from Beehive Science & Technology Academy they could walk without attracting a ticket to detention. Reporters (those who had bothered to show up) stood back, hands on hips, skepticism apparent in their raised eyebrows. Cameramen threw up their hands: Students hadn't even painted posters.

At 5 p.m., a Salt Lake City newscaster in a pin-striped suit gave a perfectly inflected, 39-second overview of the facts accompanied by nondescript footage of shuffling tennis shoes. Parents and students were upset with the State Office of Education's April 29 decision to shut down the financially struggling charter school, he said. A teacher had been put on administrative leave for allegedly trying to organize a new school.

And with that, the media — and the community — moved on. But that doesn't begin to describe what's going on inside the unremarkable, gray office building at 1011 Murray-Holladay Road. The school is $300,000 in the red, yet, teachers say, the geography class is without maps, the computer labs are stocked full of second-hand equipment and the school can't afford a janitor. The administration's unusual approach to education has driven many to question: what is the school spending its money on?

In the days since the state voted to revoke Beehive's charter, the Deseret News has scoured hundreds of pages of public records and interviewed dozens of people inside the Salt Lake City school. The emerging facts paint a troubling picture:

E-mail exchanges between teachers and administrators document a lack of transparency in administrative decisions, raising questions about the school's autonomy.

In a time of teacher layoffs, Beehive has recruited a high percentage of teachers from overseas, mainly Turkey. Many of these teachers had little or no teaching experience before they came to the United States. Some of them are still not certified to teach in Utah.

The school spent more than $53,000 on immigration fees for foreigners in five years. During the same time, administrators spent less than $100,000 on textbooks, according to state records.

Critics point to Beehive as an illustration of a bigger problem within the Utah charter school system. While Beehive is the only charter school the government has forcefully shut down, it is not the only charter school to mismanage taxpayer dollars. Just this past month, Salt Lake parents picketed in front of Dual Immersion Academy, calling for a business administrator with no finance background to step down. The bank is so bare, administrators can't afford to buy toilet paper. Merit Academy in Springville poured money it didn't have into a big facility that now operates at half capacity. In Spanish Fork, administrators at American Leadership Academy have been accused of paying employees under the table and tampering with student transcripts.

In many ways, however, Beehive is unique. Beehive's financial problems came to the board's attention in July 2009 when a former school board member accused the school of having clandestine ties to a controversial Muslim preacher. After a six-month investigation, the State Charter School Board officially declared any association with Islam "circumstantial" and cleared the school of pushing religion. Now, however, as Beehive prepares to appeal the school's closure, nearly a dozen teachers and parents have come forward with new evidence linking the school to a powerful Islamic movement unknown to many Americans.

It's early, and the May morning is oscillating back and forth between warm and chilly. Outside Beehive Science & Technology Academy, a group of teenagers starts kicking around a soccer ball for gym class. Their arms look like gooseflesh, unprotected in their matching blue polo shirts, but they are laughing. Nobody seems to care that their playing field is a yellow-striped parking lot. Beehive Academy doesn't have a gym or a cafeteria. It is housed in an old, dilapidated office building with peeling carpet and spotty paint. The elevator is broken. A boy on crutches limps up the school's main staircase. In the hallways, there is evidence of long-abandoned efforts to remodel: spackle on the wall, plastic sheets hanging from the ceiling.

Nonetheless, inside classrooms, teachers teach and students learn. The brainchild of a group of Turkish-American scholars, the school has met the requirements of the national No Child Left Behind program every year since it opened in 2005. Students, ranging from grades seven to 12, test above average. Out of 160 Utah middle schools, the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based public policy research organization, recently ranked Beehive 18th for academics and 2nd for environment. The front lobby is decorated with trophies from chess tournaments, math competitions and Turkish language contests.

With its college prep focus, Beehive fit the bill for Kelly Wayment, a father of six. He is thoroughly content living a blue-collar life as a plumber in West Valley City, he said. For his children, though, he wants more.

At first, Wayment "couldn't have been happier" at Beehive, he said. His son started learning Spanish and Turkish, joined an after-school science club and worked his way into concurrent enrollment math classes. Wayment snagged a seat on the school's governing board.

Four years passed before things started to get weird.

At board meetings, everyone except Wayment was Turkish. Everyone except Wayment seemed to vote as a block.

By 2009, all administrators and more than 50 percent of teachers and staff were Turkish men. American teachers at the school issued a formal complaint to the State Charter School Board that Turkish teachers were given hiring preference and favored for promotions. Female teachers reported being told to cover their hair and reminded that "a woman's place is home raising her children."

After a favorite teacher was fired with no explanation, Wayment discovered that the principal wasn't making personnel decisions. Instead, Accord Institute for Education Research, a California-based nonprofit that oversees charter schools in Arizona and California, appeared to be calling the shots. Oddly enough, that organization — and the schools it oversaw — were also run by Turkish men.

Beehive, it turned out, was paying Accord a considerable amount of money for professional development and curriculum helps. Workshop guest lists suggested, however, that only Turkish teachers were invited to teacher training. Aside from textbooks, at least some teachers said they were given no materials.

"It was really overwhelming," said Adam Kuntz, who taught at Beehive from 2008 to 2009. "I was a first-year teacher and I got no support from the administration, no feedback, no curriculum guidance."

Administration asked Kuntz to "make up" an elective. He approached Beehive's then-principal, Muhammet "Frank" Erdogan, about offering a class focused on World War II. He recorded the conversation.

"No," Erdogan told him. "It's too controversial."

When Kuntz pushed, Erdogan went on to explain that he believed the Jews were to blame for the Holocaust. He compared the event to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, which, he said, are also disputable.

"Everyone believes it was al-Qaida," he said. "I believe they are not part of a terrorist organization or something."

Although he eventually approved the class, Erdogan told Kuntz, "I don't just want my students to learn something not right."

Wayment, Kuntz and several other teachers started to get nervous. "The more I found out, the more I freaked out," Wayment said. If Beehive wouldn't give them answers, they'd find their own.

It took months of research to put all the pieces together, but in the end, the answer was simple. The Turkish ties, the strange allegiance to an outside management company — it all boiled down to one person: Fethullah Gülen, a mysterious Muslim preacher none of them had ever heard of.

Fethullah Gülen, Wayment learned, is a Turkish preacher, author and educator who condemns terrorism and promotes interfaith dialogue. Known to many as the "non-violent face of Islam," he has been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s, when Turkish officials took him to court for "working to overthrow secular government," according to a recent report released by Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst, a security and defense think tank based in the United Kingdom. The Gülen Movement, as Gülen and his followers are known, is the most powerful Islamic force in the world, said Hakan Yavuz, author of the book "Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement." It controls universities, banks, news outlets and schools all over the world.

While some see Gülen as a docile advocate for religious tolerance, others argue he is practicing a form of "silent jihad." In a 1999 sermon that aired on Turkish television, Gülen said that to effect reform, "every method and path is acceptable (including) lying to people."

"You must move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers …" he said. "You must wait for the time when you are complete and conditions are ripe, until we can shoulder the entire world and carry it."

Wayment had to take a deep breath the first time his research led him to a Gülen website. Could Gülen be the puppeteer behind Beehive's administration, choreographing the school's every move like a marionette show? It seemed far out.

"No one wants to think their kid's public school is part of some international conspiracy," Wayment said.

But the evidence kept piling up. Beehive shared an Internet protocol address with a West Coast Gülen dialogue organization. Beehive students were pictured in video clips and featured in news articles on Gülen's official websites. The school was propped up on high-interest personal loans from people associated with Gülen organizations.

Wayment could no longer deny it: his research pinpointed Beehive as one of about 600 Gülen charter schools across the globe. Each charter school was parented by a regional educational research institution, he said. All of them, like Beehive, were run by Turkish men and promoted Turkish culture.

Wayment's mind was racing. "I had to do something," he said.

He'd connected more than 120 U.S. schools to Gülen. He sent an e-mail to every one of their teachers.

The next day the principal of Beehive sent out a counter e-mail to his staff explaining that Beehive was a non-sectarian, non-religious nonprofit that has "no formal or legal association with any person or organization, besides the academic affiliations with UT Universities." In Texas, Soner Tarim, superintendent of the Harmony School System, sent his teachers an e-mail that read like a carbon copy. Aside from common ties to Gülen, Beehive and the Harmony School System have no association.

"That e-mail was word for word," Wayment said. When he saw it, the hair on his arms stood on end.

For almost two decades, Gülen has denied any connection to schools, attributing them to independent Turkish entrepreneurs. In response to recent media attention on the subject, however, a press release was posted on Gülen's official website stating the schools were opened "through Mr. Gülen's recommendation and encouragement."

The schools "have almost become the representatives of Turkey in the field of science," the statement read. "According to the observations of many columnists in the Turkish press, the teachers working in the schools mentioned within the framework of Gülen's understanding, are seen exemplars wherever they are by their sound characters, the level of morality in their behavior and the human values they carry, in addition to their professional proficiency."

Critics, on the other hand, say the schools are tools to solidify an Islamic political agenda. Teachers at Beehive believe Gülen is using the charter school — and others like it — to bring followers into the country and promote Turkish nationalism.

"They seek to gain power using education," said Yavuz, a University of Utah professor who is considered one of the leading Gülen researchers in the world. "Through education they believe they can come to control the elite. By controlling the elite, they control the society."

When the State Charter School Board revoked Beehive's contract April 29, board members expressed concern that the school "routinely" recruits teachers from overseas. Since the school opened in 2005, Beehive has spent more than $53,000 to bring 14 Turkish nationals into the country. Beehive picked up the legal fees for H-1B visas, sponsored the teachers for permanent residency and, in some cases, covered relocation expenses.

Few of the Turkish employees had education credentials before coming to the school, according to state records. Science teacher Steve Dagdevniren, for one, had only a bachelor's degree when Beehive agreed to fly him into the United States. Only nine of the 14 people Beehive assisted were teachers.

Teachers said Turkish employees appeared and disappeared unannounced three to four times a year. When they first arrived in the country, the employees worked as "teachers in training" until they learned English, sources inside Beehive said. Then, though students said they still struggled to understand the teacher's broken English, they were promoted to teaching positions and, sometimes, moved into administration. Americans did not get promotions, teachers said.

Employee histories suggest teachers bounce back and forth between other Gülen-inspired schools in the United States. Like Beehive, these schools deny any connection to Gülen. But like Beehive, they've also started garnering media attention for unusual business practices.

According to the Arizona Daily Star, Sonoran Science Academy and its sister schools in Arizona received certifications for 120 H-1B visas between 2002 and 2009. In just one year, the five charter schools received U.S. Labor Department certification to fill 39 teaching and administrative jobs with foreigners. Horizon Science Academy in Columbus, Ohio, also attracted criticism for paying more to hire foreign teachers. The charter school, which is led by a panel of Turkish administrators, paid $3,830 to help a school employee and his family secure expedited visas so they could come to America from Turkey, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

The money problems detailed in the news story about Horizon Science Academy sound eerily similar to Beehive's. The Horizon Science Academy entered into a too-expensive lease agreement and had to borrow money, the Dispatch reported. Concept Schools Inc., the educational management institution Horizon contracts with, "forgave" the school $150,000. Cory Kanth, financial analyst for the Utah State Charter School Board, said Beehive's fatal flaw was entering into a pricey lease agreement for a building that wasn't seismically approved to hold enough students. Before revoking the school's charter, the board criticized Beehive for relying heavily on high-interest personal loans from Turkish-American scholars. When the school got in trouble, all of the loans were forgiven.

"If you look at all the Gülen schools, they've all got problems," said Mary Addi, a former Horizon Science Academy teacher from Elyria, Ohio. Addi met and married her husband — a Turk who came to the United States on an H-1B visa — at Horizon. She learned about the school's Gülen ties during a marital argument about money.

"You don't even know how much money I make," her husband spat during a particularly heated moment.

"What are you talking about?" was Addi's answer. "Of course I do."

But she was wrong.

In return for a green card, Turkish teachers at schools like Beehive are forced to enter into a contract with the Gülen organization, Addi said. The contract requires teachers to devote a percentage of their paycheck to the movement. Teachers are allotted money according to their family situation. Addi's husband, who came to the United States as a single man, handed over 40 percent, or $18,000, of his $45,000 annual income, she said.

Although it has not been confirmed at Beehive, Addi said the organization squeezes more money out of many schools by contracting with Gülen-friendly real estate agencies and charging exorbitant rates. The schools then contract with Turkish security companies to install expensive surveillance systems. All Gülen schools pay "management fees" to a company similar to Accord, she said.

After Wayment gave his research to officials, the State Charter School Board launched a six-month investigation. The board voted to revoke Beehive's charter because of chronic "financial mismanagement," said board chairman Brian Allen.

Aside from periodic audits that rely, for the most part, on self-reported data, the state has few tools to hold charter schools accountable. State law requires schools to turn in monthly or quarterly financial reports, but the State Office of Education has no recourse if schools fail, as Beehive did, to turn in the paperwork. Because the State Office of Education has set aside only five employees to manage 72 charter schools, keeping administrators in line when it comes to issues like separation of church and state presents a problem. Beehive limped along unnoticed for nearly four years before officials took a deeper look at its day-to-day operation.

"We can't really prevent charter schools from mishandling public funds," said Brian Allen, chairman of the State Charter School Board. "They're autonomous schools. If they make decisions that hurt themselves financially, we're powerless."

For the most part, Allen said he was unconcerned about allegations that Beehive was associated with the Gülen Movement.

"As near as I could tell it was just a Turkish awareness group trying to promote Turkey," he said. The evidence Wayment produced, which added up to hundreds of pages of research, "wasn't verifiable."

Allen sifted through the financial and administrative misconduct allegations, put in a cautionary call to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and officially declared the school free of any involvement in the Gülen Movement.

"My big concern was making sure they weren't teaching religion in the classroom," he said. "They were not preaching Islam at that school in any way, shape or form."

Murat Biyik, who has been acting principal at Beehive Academy for the past few months, sighs when he's asked about the school's affiliation with the Gülen Movement. He's a quiet man with a kind face and sad eyes. The stress of Beehive's dying throes is apparent in the creases in his forehead and the bags underneath his eyes. When reporters first approached him, still in shock after the state announced its decision to shut down Beehive, he paused, unsure — an unsuspecting deer caught in headlights. "Not now," his body language seemed to say. Biyik sighed and requested an e-mail interview. Later on he started forwarding requests to his legal counsel.

"Our school is founded according to all local, state and federal charter school guidelines, laws and regulations," Biyik said in an e-mail interview. "BSTA (Beehive) is an educational institution. It is not attached to any ideology or a movement."

Some teachers "might be influenced" by Gülen, but, Biyik said, "In Turkey almost everyone knows him and gets acquainted with his ideas via mass media and such."

When asked why the majority of employees are Turkish, the organization "provides equal opportunity through affirmative action in employment and educational programs and activities," said Accord CEO Murat "Brad" Akbas in an e-mail interview.

Yuavuz Durmas, the school's business administrator, got flustered when reporters questioned Beehive's decision to spend extra money to fly in teachers from Turkey when finances were already tight.

"Seeking international experience in teaching is part of our mission statement as a school," he said, adding that "it is difficult to find qualified math and science experts in the United States."

Biyik explained the school's connections to Accord and other Gülen schools as a result of friendship between countrymen.

"Sometimes you just want to laugh and speak your own language," he said.

Back at the school, teachers just learned they won't be paid for their last two months of work. Citing affection for the children, they resolve to soldier on. Students are still bent over their books, hard at work. In the hallways between classes they carry on like teenagers do, passing notes, making jokes and sharing gum.

They're trying to keep their spirits up. The school is in the midst of filing an appeal. Biyik said the state used old financial data when evaluating Beehive and is optimistic about his chances of keeping the school open.

"I need this school to survive," said Sarah Ahmed, a 17-year-old junior. She struggled through eight different schools — public and private — before finding Beehive.

Most students shake their heads when asked about Gülen — they don't know who he is.

Some parents maintain the school's "international focus" gives students an advantage.

"Who cares about Gülen," said Vicky Wason, a Salt Lake City college teacher who cares for one of the school's foreign exchange students. "This is a good school."

Biyik said he believes the media is unfairly targeting Turkish businessmen. His demeanor reflected his personal strife.

"If you look at this from my point of view, it hurts," he said, knitting his eyebrows together. The charter is consulting legal counsel about the matter.

In the meantime, Beehive is still processing applications as if the State Charter School Board had not revoked its contract.

"We are going full speed ahead," said Karlene Welker, Beehive's administrative assistant. Taking calls, promoting the school — she's a flurry of energy. "I've already enrolled four new students this week."

e-mail: estuart@desnews.com

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