Harmony Science Academy a Gulen Charter School
Harmony Science Academy in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico are under the Cosmos Foundation. The Cosmos Foundation ran by Turkish Nationals who are known members of the Gulen Movement have abused many state and federal laws. Cosmos is the largest abuser of H1-B Visas for foreign teachers than the largest school district in America. Scratch your head and wonder why the Gulen Movement is getting away with reverse discrimination? Texas money crosses over state lines to support the other Gulen Managed charter schools, this is WRONG!! DISCLAIMER: If you find some videos are disabled this is the work of the Gulen censorship which has filed bogus copyright infringement rights to UTUBE
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The 36 schools that make up the Harmony charter school network are among the highest-rated in Texas.
But despite its glowing academic record, Harmony has received a flurry of criticism for its business practices.
In particular, the charter network's reliance on visas for Turkish-born staff and use of Turkish-owned businesses for construction and other contracts has raised questions about how it spends taxpayer money and whether it is too insular.
In just more than a decade, Harmony Public Schools, operated by the Cosmos Foundation of Houston, has grown to become one of the largest charter school networks in Texas, serving about 16,700 students last school year. Two schools, with about 900 students last year, are in San Antonio.
Some Harmony critics point to a burgeoning number of Turkish-American-led charter networks in the United States, more than 120 in 25 states, that they say are tied to Islamic political leader Fethullah Gulen.
“The only crime is that they're Turkish,” State Board of Education member and early Harmony supporter David Bradley said. “And in Texas, that is not a crime.”
From 2008 to 2010, the Labor Department certified 1,197 H-1B visa requests from the Cosmos Foundation — more than double the number of visas certified nationwide for Texas-based computer company Dell USA and about 70 percent as many as were certified for tech giant Apple Inc.
Those certifications were forwarded to the Homeland Security Department for final approval.
The visas are intended to attract foreign workers with skills that are in short supply among American workers.
Harmony has about 290 employees working on H-1B visas, or 16 percent of its workforce, according to Superintendent Soner Tarim. Most are Turkish, said Tarim, who is also from Turkey.
Few other Texas school districts hire significant numbers of workers on H-1B visas.
“Staffing Northside schools has never really been a problem,” said Pascual Gonzalez, spokesman for Bexar County's largest school district with 97,000 students, where Labor Department records show no H-1B visa certifications in recent years. “In the past there have been thousands of people applying for hundreds of jobs.”
At Harmony, Tarim said the charter network finds a shortage of qualified teachers in math, science and English as a second language sometimes prompts them to hire foreign workers.
He noted that Harmony's focus on science and math means particularly high recruiting standards in those areas.
“It's unacceptable for us to raise our kids to say, ‘I cannot do math,'” he said.
Nearly a third of the H-1B certifications received by Cosmos actually were for jobs outside those fields, however.
Labor Department data includes visa certifications for legal counsel, accountants, assistant principals, public relations coordinators and teachers of art, English and history.
“They may be on an H-1B visa and they already worked in our system and they changed positions,” Tarim said, noting the number of certifications includes renewals and applications for individuals who change jobs or locations. “Remember, we always promote from within in our organization.”
Some students say they have trouble understanding foreign-born teachers.
“One of our teachers ... is Turkish,” sixth-grader Noah Nabers volunteered. “And it's kind of hard to understand him.”
But some parents say they are unfazed by concerns over the visas.
Earl Estrada said the teachers at Harmony are better educated than those his daughter encountered at a previous charter school, and he doesn't care how many come in on visas.
“I went to Cal State Fullerton. ... We had a United Nations at that school as far as professors,” Estrada said. “They fit the criteria as far as getting people educated.”
In a year when schools across the state struggled to meet state and federal academic standards, 21 of the 33 Harmony Schools rated earned one of the top two state accountability ratings; the remaining 12 are rated “academically acceptable.”
Like most charter school operators, Harmony's first schools opened in former stores and spaces leased from churches. Harmony still operates some storefront campuses, but over time began to build its own schools using money from the sale of public bonds.
Tarim bristled at the implication that the charter network was giving much of its work to a closed circle of Turkish-owned businesses.
“That's actually a misconception,” he said.
The Cosmos Foundation does award many contracts to businesses owned by non-Turks.
But in recent years, eight of the charter network's 10 largest contracts have gone to just two companies, both of which have close ties to Cosmos: the Houston-based contracting firms Solidarity Contracting and TDM Contracting.
Solidarity is run by a former Harmony school business manager, according to a report by the New York Times. TDM was formed a couple of years ago by a former Solidarity employee.
Together, the two young companies have received more than $66 million in Cosmos contracts since 2009, records show. The total doesn't include cost overruns or smaller jobs they might have been awarded.
“The lowest responsible bid wins,” Tarim said, during an interview at the new School of Innovation in San Antonio, which was built by TDM.
The firm's $8.2 million bid was the lowest of the five submitted for the project, although Tarim said the final cost turned out to be about $10 million.
In response to an open records request, Cosmos provided no criteria used to rank the five firms or information about how such criteria was weighted, saying simply that the contract was awarded to the lowest bidder.
Some of Harmony's harshest critics point to somewhat opaque connections between the charter operator and Gulen, a charismatic religious leader from Turkey who espouses religious tolerance and a moderate brand of Islam from his self-imposed Pennsylvania exile.
Tarim laughed a little when asked about the relationship between Harmony and Gulen, which he said is nonexistent.
“We get asked this question many, many times,” he said, waving off any connection. “We continue to tell people (there is no tie).”
But some former Harmony board members have been involved with the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue, a Houston-based organization with branches in San Antonio and other cities that takes its inspiration from Gulen.
One of those men, Harmony founder Yetkin Yildirim, told the New York Times earlier this year that he has been influenced by Gulen. Yildirim helped Tarim start the charter schools after recognizing a laxity in America's math and science education.
Bradley, the state school board member, recalled when Harmony came forward with its initial charter proposal, more than a decade ago. He said the team was, and is, passionate about improving education for Texas children.
A conservative, Bradley said he considers Harmony's critics his political allies but said their attacks on the charter network are misguided.
“There's a small group of folks that are working to smear their good name and I take exception to that,” Bradley said.
State Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, chose the Harmony Science Academy for his children after hearing about it from a Texas Education Agency employee who was also a Harmony parent.
Menendez said he and his wife liked the diversity and tolerance they found at their children's school, as well as the focus on science and math, but he stressed that there is no religious instruction at his children's school.
“I don't know why people feel threatened,” he said. “There really isn't anything going on other than people educating them.”
Harmony opened three new campuses in Texas this school year and is on track to enroll 24,000 children by the end of 2012, according to Tarim.
The Cosmos Foundation also provides management services to other charter networks.
Tarim said Cosmos consults with the School of Science and Technology, a small San Antonio-based charter network run by a nonprofit called the Riverwalk Education Foundation.
“We provided help as to how to establish a program,” Tarim explained.
Though Cosmos and Riverwalk have separate boards, others referenced a closer tie between the two organizations, referring to their campuses as “sister” schools.
The charter networks contract with several of the same businesses, and students and staff seem to frequently move from one organization to another.
Opposition to Harmony, mostly from the conservative, grass-roots Eagle Forum, nearly plunged the state Legislature into a second special session earlier this year after a small group of Republicans voted down a must-pass bill.
The legislation included a provision to use money for state public schools to guarantee charter school bonds, potentially saving the Cosmos Foundation tens of millions thanks to lower interest rates.
The conservative legislators switched their votes only after striking a compromise that included a resolution to conduct a House investigation of all of the state's charter schools.
Not part of that probe, the TEA has spent the past several months conducting an audit of roughly $540,000 in “inadequately documented” federal grant funds received by the Cosmos Foundation, TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said.
State school board member Michael Soto called the wrangling in the Legislature “a political cheap shot against Harmony for the obvious reason that most of its administration is Turkish” but said he welcomed increased scrutiny of the state's charter schools.
“There's very little oversight of the charter system by TEA and whenever you can bring that forward, that's a good thing,” Soto said. “The Legislature could do its part by giving the TEA more authority to shut down charters that are failing.”
Database Editor Kelly Guckian and News Researchers Kevin Frazzini and Julie Domel contributed to