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Hidden Agenda? 

Parents raise concerns that a Tucson charter school has ties to a Turkish nationalist movement

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.

She says teachers and administers freely circulate among these schools. At the same time, says the parent, the Sonoran Academy seems constantly to be bringing Turkish educators into the United States, and subjecting students to substitute teachers while the teachers await work visas.

According to this parent, all of these ties may lead covertly back to the Gülen movement, named for the scholar, who founded a network of schools around the world and now lives in exile in Pennsylvania. She says several Sonoran Academy parents believe the school has a hidden agenda to promote Gülen's brand of Turkish nationalism, advance sympathy for that country's political goals such as winning acceptance into the European Union, and discourage official acknowledgement of Turkey's genocide against the Armenians during World War I.

"We found one document, in Turkish, that talks about the purpose of these charter schools," says the parent. "They refer to them very explicitly as schools (belonging) to their movement. They're calculating, and they say if they can have something like 600 schools, then every year, they can produce 120,000 sympathizers for Turkey.

"I sent my kids to this school because I wanted them to meet regular Muslims and to see them as ordinary people," she says. "But when I find that my kids are to be turned into genocide-deniers, that's very disturbing to me."

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.

Although Utah's State Charter School Board cleared Beehive of deliberately promoting Gülen beliefs, lawmakers there have continued to probe its finances. The school-board investigation revealed that Beehive received loans from administrators at other Turkish-American schools, and from executives of the Accord Institute, a California-based organization with a Turkish-American staff. Accord provides educational consulting services and develops education models for programs for schools including Tucson's Sonoran Academy. But Karatas, calls the institute a "private organization," and says he's unaware of any ties between Accord and Gülen.

Other connections raise more questions. They include the Pacifica Institute, which operates the "Turkish Olympiads," in which Sonoran Academy students are encouraged to participate. The Olympiad contests range from essay writing and singing to poetry composition. According to its Web site, the institute was formed by Turkish-Americans in California with a mission of promoting cross-cultural awareness.

In December, the Pacifica Institute co-hosted a Gülen conference with the University of Southern California, and actively promotes Gülen beliefs on its Web site.

Indeed, the Gülen movement's own Web site seems to lay the groundwork for claims made by the Tucson parent. It discusses the group's rapidly expanding, worldwide educational facilities which have "made Gülen's network the most influential Turkish-Islamic movement both in Turkey and abroad. ... In the field of education, this part of the identity is however not stressed and teachers from outside the (movement) work at these schools as well. They may be non-Muslims and in many cases the pupils have never heard of Fethullah Gülen."

The Weekly was provided with a list of Turkish staff members that have rotated through various schools and the Accord Institute—another strategy promoted by the Gülen Web site.

Of course, all of this could be purely coincidental. But the Tucson mother says many parents feel increasingly betrayed by what they consider the Sonoran Academy's ongoing secrecy.

"Other parents say, 'I could almost be OK with this if they were out in the open about it.' But the (school) has done such a phenomenal job of keeping this a secret."

However, Karatas suggests those who make such claims are flirting with trouble.

"I'm hoping that they know that these are defamatory allegations which may put them in trouble later on. These are excelling schools. ... I hope they are aware of what they're doing."

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