Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Foreigners fill ranks of local charter- school chain

Foreigners fill ranks of local charter- school chain

Sonoran Science Academy cites shortage of adequate teachers in hiring many Turks

  • Updated

Tucson's Sonoran Science Academy and its sister schools import an unusually large proportion of their staff from foreign countries, especially Turkey, in a practice that parallels the customs of an important Turkish religious-political movement.

The five Sonoran Science Academy charter schools and their parent company, Daisy Education Corp., received U.S. Labor Department certification to fill 39 teaching and administrative jobs with foreigners last year, federal data show. From 2002 through 2009, the schools have received certifications for 120 H-1B visas.

That's more certifications than any comparable school in Arizona received in that eight-year period - and more than the six biggest school districts in Southern Arizona combined.

Sonoran Science Academy schools and Daisy Education requested so many visas because they have been unable to find adequate math and science teachers in the United States, because Daisy Education is adding schools fast, and because, in some cases, multiple applications were filed for the same person or position, Superintendent Ozkur Yildiz said via e-mail.

Yildiz also noted the schools' high test scores and many awards, and that the Arizona Charter Schools Association named the northwest-side school 2009 Charter School of the Year.

But some parents and former teachers question the practice, especially in a time of teacher layoffs.

"I don't understand why we're not hiring teachers from our areas here. I'm sure our teachers are just as qualified," said Sonoran Science parent Julie Festerling, who works as a substitute teacher at other schools.

Some experts point to a different possible explanation: that Sonoran Science Academy is part of a loose global network of Turkish-run schools - 100 or more in the United States - inspired by Fethullah Gülen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. Worldwide, "Gülen schools" tend to hire teachers from Turkey and the broader "Turkic" world, including Central Asia, and their schools emphasize math, science and Turkish culture, scholars said.

"The schools are the basic avenue to build the Turkish community in America," said Hakan Yavuz, a political science professor at the University of Utah who co-authored the 2003 book "Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement."

"The number of Turks in America is quite increased as a result of this movement."

Yildiz, the superintendent, denied that the school is affiliated with any movement and called Yavuz's assessment "outrageously disturbing." But he allowed that some of the schools' staff may follow Gülen.

"In the context of Turkey or professionals coming from Turkey, it is virtually impossible not to know Mr. Gülen or be familiar with his ideas or thoughts," he wrote. "With this in mind, it is possible that some of the staff might be inspired by Mr. Gülen."

visa requests high

H-1B visas are the job permits often issued to high-tech professionals from other countries, such as software engineers hired by Microsoft.

Employers aren't required to prove there are no Americans for the job. Rather, they must apply to hire a qualified foreigner in an approved job category and promise to pay prevailing local wages.

The number of H-1B visas is capped - this year at 65,000 - and they ran out fast until the recession hit. But there is an exemption to the cap for nonprofit organizations affiliated with universities, said Tucson immigration attorney Mo Goldman. Sonoran Science has used that exemption in seeking some H-1B visas, Yildiz said.

Other Arizona schools use the H-1B program - most often small, rural schools that have trouble attracting qualified Americans. Near Tucson, the Coolidge and Ajo districts have used H-1B visas to fill their teaching ranks.

Ajo Superintendent Bob Dooley said he has hired four teachers from the Philippines, originally on a different visa, called the J-1. Converting that to an H-1B has been a struggle, he said.

"I've probably spent $4,000 on legal fees trying to get an H-1B teacher. She's a top-drawer teacher, one of the best I've seen in her category," he said.

But most metro-area schools have an easier time finding staff and rarely request these visas, Labor Department data show. Tucson's six largest public school districts, with total enrollment of more than 100,000 students, applied for 54 H-1B visas since 2002- fewer than half the 120 Sonoran Science Academy schools have requested for their 1,525 students.

Basis Schools, another high-performing, Tucson-founded group of charter schools, has about the same number of students as the Daisy Education schools but has been certified for just seven H-1B visas since 2002.

And the Academy of Math and Science in Tucson, which has scored well but lower than Sonoran Science Academy on AIMS tests, has gone 10 years without hiring anyone on an H-1B visa. How? By recruiting nationwide, said Tatyana Chayka, who has directed the school for its whole existence.

"We also contact universities, mathematic departments, we post ads on their bulletin boards. We literally use every source of advertisement to recruit the good teachers," she said.

And once they're on board, she said, the school works to retain them.

All that matters to Tom Horne, Arizona's superintendent of public instruction, is Sonoran Science Academy's results.

"My view is that if the leaders of the school are from Turkey, and they're bringing in people from Turkey, and they're doing a great job, then our country's enriched by that."

Parents weigh in

Most of the H-1B visas Sonoran Science Academy and Daisy Education have requested have been for math or science teachers. But there have been many exceptions, especially as the number of visas requested by the schools has grown.

The schools received certifications in 2009 for five business managers, two secondary-school teachers, an elementary school teacher and a teacher of English as a second language. In 2008, they received certifications for two "instructional coordinators."

Yildiz said each of the applications responded to a specific need, though in some cases accidental duplication may have occurred - for example, a single person might have been expected to fill two roles - so each certification may not have led to a visa. The certifications may also reflect efforts to renew existing employees' visas, he wrote.

"If the U.S. government offers H-1B programs in which employers may participate, and the employer lawfully participates in such programs, the employer has done its duty," Yildiz wrote.

Yildiz would not break down the schools' staffs by nationality or visa status, but a review of the books of résumés on file at three Tucson Sonoran-Science campuses painted a rough picture. Among 79 current and past staff members whose résumés were on file, about 32 percent were educated in Turkey, while 60 percent were educated in the United States.

For some Sonoran Science parents and students, the presence of teachers and administrators from Turkey and Central Asia has been a source of enrichment.

"I absolutely love the school," said Diana Bressler, who has had three children attend the biggest Sonoran Science campus at 2325 W. Sunset Road. The teachers from Turkey, she said, tend to be very dedicated.

Her daughter, Maria, has taken Turkish classes and gone to Turkey on school trips, she said, and her son competed in a Turkish language and performance contest in California.

"I've always been interested in different cultures," Maria Bressler said. With her Sonoran Science Academy experiences, she said, "I feel like I'm more open, and I can appreciate others."

But some parents and former teachers question the presence of so many foreign teachers and administrators, if only because some of them have strong accents that make communication and instruction difficult.

"The biggest problem is that the teachers are not as fluent in English as they could be," said parent Tina Cloutier, whose son traveled to Turkey on a trip won in a Turkish language competition. "It makes it difficult for them to understand students, and for the students to understand the teacher."

Teaching Turkish

The Sonoran Science Academy schools emphasize Turkish culture in a way that surprises some parents.

Turkish is one of two languages taught at the school, along with Spanish, and a semester of each is required for sixth graders, parents said. Even the preschoolers at the Daisy Early Learning Academy are taught Turkish language and customs.

Students are encouraged to compete in the Turkish-language olympics in California against students from other Turkish-run charter schools. And a trip to Europe is offered every year, which may include France, or Germany or another European nation, but always includes Turkey.

A recent rivalry soccer game, pitting Istanbul clubs Fenerbahce and Galatasaray against each other, was screened at the school. And art students may learn the Turkish practice of "ebru," or water marbling.

It was all a bit much for Cynthia Corrales, who graduated from Sonoran Science Academy last year.

"I understand we have people from other cultures and countries, but I mean, a whole school run by Turkish people? It was really weird," Corrales said.

The language offerings, especially, bother some parents, such as Rodney Holland, who has had three children there, including a daughter who took Turkish.

"Do I mind her learning Turkish? Well, it's all knowledge," Holland said. "Do I think it's valuable? Probably not."

Yildiz said such points of view are narrow-minded and pointed out that Turkish is considered one of seven critical languages by the U.S. Education Department. He called offering Turkish "a unique advantage."

Schools spread

Three Turkish professionals living in Tucson founded Sonoran Science Academy in 2001. One, Nasuhi Yurt, was studying optical sciences at the University of Arizona at the time.

"It occurred to us we could help in the community while I was there," he said. "We heard about this charter school idea, a couple friends got together."

The result was Sonoran Science Academy.

It may seem a singular story, but Turkish scholars, scientists and technology professionals were doing the same thing around the United States in the last decade. Harmony Science Academy was born in Texas, Magnolia Science Academy in California, Coral Academy of Science in Nevada and Beehive Science & Technology Academy in Utah, among many others.

The Turkish-run schools in the West, including Sonoran Science Academy, contract with the Accord Institute, a nonprofit in Tustin, Calif., also run by Turks, for curriculum and other services. Turkish teachers and administrators circulate frequently among the schools.

Ercan Aydogdu, the Sonoran Science Academy principal who opened a school last year at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, now is principal at the Turkish-run Bay Area Technology School in Oakland, Calif.

Murat Biyik was a math teacher at Sonoran Science Academy, moved on to Beehive Academy in Utah, went to the Magnolia school in Hollywood, Calif., then to the Accord Institute near Los Angeles, and now is back at Beehive Academy.

Fatih Karatas, principal of Sonoran Science Academy's campus at 2325 W. Sunset Road, came from Magnolia Science Academy's Reseda campus in Los Angeles.

Rather than describe the schools as a network, Yildiz called the connections a natural result of communication in the Turkish and charter-school worlds.

"It is not a surprise that many of the founders and operators know each other through nationwide conferences, seminars and forums that are specifically geared toward small charter schools," he wrote. "There is nothing surprising or mysterious for educational leaders from Turkey to share similar teaching philosophies given the fact that they have similar academic/education background."

The Gülen Movement

Scholars Jill Carroll and Hakan Yavuz believe the schools are all inspired by Turkish Islamic leader Fethullah Gülen and follow the model he established three decades ago.

"The Gülen movement is very focused on education," said Carroll, who wrote a book on the movement, "A Dialogue of Civilizations: Gülen's Islamic Ideals and Humanistic Discourse," put out by a Gülen-affiliated publisher. "There are at least 1,000 or more of these schools in the world."

Gülen started his first schools in Turkey in the early 1980s and established a focus on science and technology. He left out religion because Turkey's secular government would not permit it in schools. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Gülen's followers established hundreds of schools in the newly independent Central Asian countries, attempting to rekindle a Turkish cultural kinship there.

The schools spread to Europe, Africa and, since about 2000, to the United States, seizing charter-school opportunities arising around the country.

Yavuz, the University of Utah professor, said the schools may provide excellent science-and-math education, but there is another motive to their founding.

"They think they need to create a Turkish base, a social network. They get green cards, they become citizens. They have marriages, kids," said Yavuz, who is from Turkey. "You're seeing a long-term vision of creating a more powerful Turkish community in America."

Carroll sees the motives as benign. It's an open-minded movement focused on reconciling Islam and other faiths, as well as melding Islamic belief and scientific pursuits.

"I don't think the goal of the Gülen movement is to spread Turkishism around the world," she said. "But as an immigrant community here, they are interested in strengthening themselves by being acknowledged in the community."

While Yildiz denied Sonoran Science Academy is affiliated with the movement, one of Sonoran Science Academy's founders, Nasuhi Yurt, left Tucson in 2005 for Ebru TV, a Gülen movement network based in New Jersey.

Ali Unver, president of Paragon Education Corp. in Chandler - a Sonoran Science sister school - told a Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist "about the noted Turkish preacher and scholar M. Fethullah Gülen," during a dinner there in November.

When a Sonoran Science student competed in a Turkish competition in California, he recited a poem by Gülen called "Hic," a piece recommended by his teacher. A video of his performance, and those of other Sonoran Science students, can be viewed on the "Gülen Movement channel" on YouTube, and were recounted in Gülen's newspapers in Turkey.

And Gülen himself, a powerful political force in Turkey, claimed responsibility for U.S. schools in a 2007 lawsuit against the Homeland Security Department as part of his effort to gain permanent residence.

His argument in that lawsuit was that he was a person of exceptional ability in the field of education. Among Gülen's accomplishments, his attorneys argued, were that he "has overseen the establishment of a conglomeration of schools throughout the world, in Europe, Central Asia, and the United States."

Contact reporter Tim Steller at or 807-8427.

Subscribe to stay connected to Tucson. A subscription helps you access more of the local stories that keep you connected to the community.

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

This is Daisy Education Superintendent Ozkur Yildiz's response to my first inquiry, about the schools' many requests for H-1B visas.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News