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Seminar Explores Concept Charter School's Turkish Roots

By Casey Cora | January 29, 2014 11:41am
 Concept Schools Vice President Salim Ucan with Jean Nowaczewski, director of the Illinois State Charter Commission.    
Concept Schools Vice President Salim Ucan with Jean Nowaczewski, director of the Illinois State Charter Commission.    
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DNAinfo/Casey Cora

MCKINLEY PARK — On the same day the CPS Board of Education OK'd two new Concept charter schools last week, groups across the country were dialed into an online seminar outlining the school leaders' alleged ties to a controversial, reclusive Turkish cleric.

"The whole thing is filled with international intrigue ... and it just so happens that it's been placed in my backyard," said Bill Drew, a McKinley Park activist who hosted a broadcast of a webinar on Concept Schools and other similarly-run charter schools throughout the country.

Concept operates three schools in Chicago: the Chicago Math and Science Academy in Rogers Park, the Horizon Science Academy Belmont in Austin and Horizon Science Academy McKinley Park. On Jan. 22, CPS gave them the green light to open two more schools, one in South Chicago and the other in Chatham.

Leaders for the Des Plaines-based Concept Schools company, which operates dozens of schools across the Midwest, say while they may have been inspired by Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, their schools have no financial or religious ties to the "Gulen Movement," the name prescribed to the web of influential media, cultural and international business concerns influenced by him.

But observers of the Muslim cleric, including Loyola University Maryland author Joshua Hendrick and California-based researcher and webinar host Sharon Higgins, say Concept and other Turkish-American charter operators are inextricably linked.

A December story in the Sun-Times outlined ties between Chicago's Turkish-American business groups and Concept's operators.

Gulen himself has denied any direct connections to the American charter groups. He now lives in a compound in rural Pennsylvania in a self-imposed exile.

Gulen is billed as a public intellectual, humanitarian and wizened promoter of peace, tolerance and justice — qualities highlighted on his official website.

But foreign policy watchers and academics quoted in a recent L.A. Times story say he's causing a bitter division in Turkish politics that threatens that country's stability, and he and his followers are seeking more power in America.

That has critics like Higgins concerned. She says the groups operate mostly in the shadows but their influence is starting to grow.

"I look forward to the time, hopefully within the next few years, when Fethullah Gulen and the Gulen Movement are as commonly known to Americans as L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, and Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church," said Higgins, who hosted the recent webinar.

The "Gulen Movement" has a special focus on establishing charter schools, which act as conduits to get Gulen loyalists from Turkey into America through work visas, she said. One of her papers, "Concept Schools, Illinois, and the Gulen Movement" can be read here.

Gulen has denied founding or operating any schools and Concept officials have said the company is not affiliated with any other charter networks.

Contacted by DNAinfo Chicago, Concept vice president Salim Ucan called the criticism "fear-mongering" and "irresponsible" and said the group's only focus is on its students.

"We don't have much to say regarding the alarming rhetoric that has been used to describe our organization other than to say it is just that, alarming. It is clear that it is being directed entirely by an outside group that is attempting to use our students as part of a political fight," he wrote in an email. "To imply that the heritage of our organization's founders is synonymous with any ideological movement is inaccurate and insulting."

In multiple media appearances, operators of the 140-some Gulen-inspired schools in America have said their schools are devoid of religious instruction. They say the charters are filling an important niche in American education by promoting a curriculum packed with science, technology, engineering and math.

Concept's promotional literature shows the school is intent on "preparing future doctors, scientists and engineers."

Gulen's followers, known as "The Hizmet," are part of educational groups, nonprofits and social groups across the world, including the Niagara Foundation, a Chicago-based interfaith group that lists Gulen as its "honorary president."

According to the Sun-Times, powerful Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan took four trips to Turkey as a guest of the Niagara Foundation and the Turkish American Chamber of Commerce.  Madigan paid for his travel but meals and hotels were covered by those two groups, the newspaper reported.

Those ties have created suspicion about political influence in the highly charged debate over charter schools in Illinois.

Critics of Concept say the relationship was highlighted when a little-known state agency — created with Madigan's help — reversed a CPS decision denying Concept's proposal to open two schools in Chicago in 2012. 

The Illinois State Charter Commission gave the charter company the green light, making the Southwest Side school among the state's only charters to be authorized by the agency.

The Commission's director Jean Nowaczewski has been a staunch defender of Concept, saying she'd like to see more of the schools in Illinois.

Last week, the CPS board authorized Concept to open two more schools in Chicago.

CPS spokeswoman Jamila Johnson said the district's change of heart "was mostly based upon their track record" and that Concept's Chicago Math and Science Academy has improved to a high-performing Level One school after a recent slip in academic performance.

The new schools are scheduled to open next year.