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Texas Charter School Chain's Resources Used at Local, But Unrelated, Campus

By Hailey Heinz
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          Ahmet Cetinkaya was a teacher in Turkey and then Texas before heading the new Albuquerque School of Excellence, a charter that is one of a growing number of Turkish-run schools around the country.
        The Albuquerque School of Excellence, which opened this year in an old grocery store near Tramway and Lomas, uses curriculum, training and other resources from Harmony Schools, a chain of Texas charter schools where Cetinkaya taught. The school serves students in grades 1-8, with a focus on math and science.
        Harmony Schools, with a reputation for high test scores and graduation rates, are run almost exclusively by Turkish-Americans.
        Although the schools have caught the attention of journalists and parent groups, educators caution against thinking of them as a united network, since they belong to different chains with no connection. Harmony Schools in Texas, for example, has no formal connection to the Sonoran schools in Arizona. Both are Turkish-run charter systems.
        "I'm not sure I'd call it a movement," said Nelson Smith, senior adviser and former head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. "There are several states where there are a number of schools that are Turk-led. If I could characterize them as a group, they seem to be high-performing and well-run, with a math and science flavor."
        The School of Excellence aims to fit that mold. Cetinkaya leads tours of the school with pride, showing off the building, which has been brightly painted and remodeled to accommodate the 220 students enrolled this year.
        Parent Marianne Hund said she researched the school before enrolling her two sons. She is excited so far about the education they are getting, and said the success of Harmony schools in Texas gave her confidence in the new school.
        "They don't have to reinvent the wheel; they're going off something that has been invented and tested, and that meant a lot to us as parents," she said.
        Hund belongs to a small co-op of School of Excellence parents who commute from the East Mountains, and she said the parents and students in that group are happy with the school staff and want their students exposed to people from other countries.
        Still, Cetinkaya said he has fielded questions from parents concerned about the school's ties to Turkey, and about Internet-fueled rumors that the schools are connected to Fethullah Gulen, a prominent, controversial Turkish thinker who has pushed for more dialogue between the Western and Muslim worlds.
        No concrete links between Turkish-American charter schools and Gulen have been documented, and Cetinkaya said his school has no links to Islam or Gulen's philosophy. He acknowledged, though, that most Turkish educators have read Gulen's books and may be influenced by his thinking. Gulen is controversial in Turkey, but is widely known as a Muslim thinker who condemns terrorism and promotes tolerance.
        "Gulen is really well-known in Turkey. He has many books and is on TV," Cetinkaya said. "Most people have probably read his books."
        Hund described herself as a devout Christian, and said even if staff are inspired by a Muslim thinker, that isn't a problem for her.
        "I think you have to look for real experience with real people and then make your own assessments," she said. "My experience with the people running the Albuquerque School of Excellence is that they bring grace, patience, creativity and respect for all people to the table."
        Cetinkaya came to the United States on a work visa provided by the Cosmos Foundation, a nonprofit that supports Harmony Schools. He initially came to Albuquerque in April to help recruit for the School of Excellence, and stayed on as principal when Harmony officials asked him to do so (and when he got a taste of the weather).
        Cetinkaya is relaxed but firm in debunking rumors that have sometimes surrounded Harmony schools. He said his school offers both Turkish and Spanish language classes, but in no way pushes Islam or any other aspects of Turkish culture. On his staff of 19, three are Turkish, including Cetinkaya.
        He said especially in the early stages of a new school, he makes it a point to keep the school's doors open and allow parents to visit at all times. Transparency is necessary, he said, to dispel parent fears.
        "Being a Turkish-American and starting a new school, it's a question parents have," he said.
        Part of the school's central philosophy is encouraging participation in academic competition, including robotics contests and geography bees. In robotics class, the theme for this year's national contest is medical technology. Students are charged with building and programming robots that can simulate sophisticated tasks like placing a cast on a limb or applying just the right pressure to a nerve.
        Tyler Collins, an eighth-grader at the school, eagerly shows off the tasks the team will need to complete and the progress they've made so far. Collins, 13, hopes to become an engineer and is excited about the robotics competition.
        "I've been wanting to mess with robots," he said. "This is a good time to start my engineering."

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