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In Perfect Harmony?

Harmony Public Schools is the largest and fastest-growing charter school network in Texas, with eight new schools open this year and a total of 33 schools statewide serving about 16,500 students. Founded by Turkish academics, Harmony boasts small classes, a worldly faculty with advanced degrees and outstanding TAKS scores — which is why, perhaps, it's one of just three charter operators given permission by the Texas Education Agency to open new schools without going through the usual bureaucratic channels.

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Rebecca Hall moves frenetically around the classroom, kneeling here and there in front of desks, literally getting in students’ faces to help them. On the board she's drawn “Vonnegut’s cross,” a diagram to teach her AP English students the underpinning of narrative, and she's written a sentence meant to inspire a discussion of how dramatic structures are ripped from reality: “Does your life have a plot?”

As in most classrooms on the campus of Harmony Charter School of Advancement in North Houston, the academic action moves at striking speed and with full engagement from students. As Hall divides students into work groups, pairing stronger and weaker, she raises her arms and exclaims “Synergy!” in a unabashedly geeky display that might spark giggly ridicule in many high school classrooms — but not here. Harmony has succeeded in cultivating a culture in which geeks are coddled and cut-ups shunned. Hall’s is one of 14 Advanced Placement classes here, and she’s one of many teachers with advanced degrees (she has a doctorate in English from Baylor). She’s smart. She knows it. So do her students.

And they love it, as is evident when they tackle a complex question: How do you diagram a plot line where the character thinks he’s succeeding but the audience knows he’s failing? After Hall praises an answer from senior Benjamin Abraham — which she dubs the “irony squiggle” — the student excitedly accepts the endorsement: "She has multiple degrees!" he reminds his classmates.

The plot lines at HCSA — whose new four-story facility is one of eight schools opened just this year by Harmony Public Schools, the fastest growing charter network in Texas — unfold against a number of intriguing back stories. Founded by Turkish academics who lamented the lack of math and science skills in college students, the charter network has quietly grown into the largest charter operator in Texas, now serving about 16,500 students in 33 schools. The network will grow to 24,000 students by 2012, adding grades to existing schools and opening new ones, says Superintendent Soner Tarim, who earned his doctorate from Texas A&M University and helped found Harmony, which has planted roots in every big city and region in Texas. Further growth would seem limited only by the organization’s ambition: It’s one of just three charter operators to whom the state's education commissioner, Robert Scott, has granted blanket permission to open new schools without getting each approved through the regular bureaucratic process.

Unlike better-known charter operators like YES Prep (which made a splash last week with a $1 million donation from Oprah Winfrey) and KIPP, Harmony has emerged quietly, with less concern for its public profile. But it recently has drawn media attention in two starkly different contexts: A glowing Texas Monthly profile cast Harmony at the head of a “movement in Texas that may revolutionize our education system,” while USA Today painted it as part of a secretive national collective of organizations tied to Islamic religious philosopher Fethullah Gülen. Harmony denies the connection, yet it has become the subject of an internet campaign by right-leaning bloggers alleging that the schools are “madrassas” indoctrinating students in radical Islamic dogma. Before the school opened a school in Odessa this year, a handful of protesters handed out fliers alleging that the Texas Education Agency was “helping Muslims take over our country,” Tarim says. (Quizzed by a reporter from the local CBS affiliate about the source of the allegation, one dumbstruck protester responded, “The website,” though she couldn’t name which one.)

Tarim and other Harmony educators seem bemused by all the fuss. The Odessa school opened right on schedule, receiving 500 applications for 250 spots. Tarim says Harmony's faculty numbers more than 1,600, and 300 teachers are foreign born — most of them are Turkish, a natural product of connections to Turks with high-level math and science credentials. “If you live in another country, you want to be close to your countrymen. If you’re an Irishman, you’ll go out and hang out in an Irish pub,” he says. “You meet together, play soccer, get together for picnics on the weekends so you don’t feel homesick. And most Turkish people who come here come to pursue math and science degrees.”

A different niche

Beyond the race or religion of the instructors, a more interesting question is whether Harmony and other specialized high-performing charters represent a comprehensive answer to the problems of Texas public education, and, if so, who benefits. As charter schools still serve fewer than 2 percent of Texas public school students, the answer would seem to be a simple no. Moreover, not all charters are high-achieving; a large number in Texas are “dropout recovery” charters for problem students, a relatively new and unproven genre. And national studies have repeatedly shown that charters, on average, perform no better or worse than other public schools.

Yet the debate over charters continues to roil, often engendering resentment from advocates of traditional public education who compete for the same public funds. The argument hinges on whether charters serve a demographically and academically comparable set of students — the key to whether an apples-to-apples comparison is possible. While many supporters have positioned charters as a solution to a problem, arguing they've succeeded in educating low-income children where public schools have failed, educators at Harmony seem more content merely to occupy a niche: operating high-achieving schools for racially diverse but often middle-class and motivated students.

“The kids who come here are the ones whose parents care enough to fill out the application but can’t afford private school,” Hall says. "We're not trying to compete with the public schools. We're just trying to supplement what they're doing."

Various charter operators have tangled bitterly with teachers unions, but Harmony has managed to avoid that strife in Houston. “There hasn’t been any ill will with them,” says longtime Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon, never one to hold her tongue. “They don’t come out and bash the public schools. They don’t necessarily come out and say, ‘We’ve got the same kids as the public schools.’ They’re not as noisy as KIPP and YES. That’s probably a smart move on their part — sometimes you do better flying under the radar.”

Comparing the kids

Tarim, the superintendent, seems to be learning the art of public relations as his burgeoning operation gets more attention. In a recent sit-down with the The Texas Tribune, he showed an extended slide show and raved in great depth about the schools for more than two hours. He noted that his demographics aren't much different than those of non-charter schools: Harmony educates almost the same racial mix as public schools statewide — the difference is that it serves fewer white students and more Asian students — and the percentage of economically disadvantaged children enrolled matches the state average of 56 percent, according to state data. Yet success rates on the state TAKS test, Tarim points out, are much higher at Harmony: In the third grade, 95 percent passed compared to 76 percent statewide; in the fifth grade, 92 percent versus 69 percent; and in the ninth grade, 95 percent versus 56 percent.

While Harmony’s test scores are outstanding by any measure, a true comparison to the non-charter schools is tricky. The school districts in big cities where Harmony operates often serve an even greater percentage of economically distressed students. And Harmony schools naturally attract more-motivated parents seeking a more rigorous environment and willing to play a supporting role. Like many charters, Harmony purposely does not offer transportation, partly as a matter of cost concerns but mostly out of a desire to demand a family investment, Tarim says.

The other issue dogging the high results of charters like Harmony involves student attrition. State law prevents charters from using selective criteria for admissions, but many critics have argued that they find ways to push out lower-performing students after they've enrolled. Ed Fuller, associate director of research for the University Council for Educational Administration at the University of Texas, recently irked Harmony officials and other charter advocates when he told USA Today that the network’s attrition rate was “50 percent” and that those who left were the lower-performing students, leaving stronger students behind to push up overall test scores.

In an interview with the Tribune, Fuller conceded that the percentage was merely an estimate based on an informal review of high school-level data, not a comprehensive study. (The vast majority of Harmony students currently are in lower grades, though its high schools are expanding.) Asked to more formally and thoroughly examine the data, Fuller produced statistics on student attrition for all charter middle schools in the state’s regular accountability system (which excludes the dropout recovery charters serving exclusively troubled students.) At three Harmony middle schools included in Fuller’s analysis, between 61 and 67 percent of students remained enrolled for all three years, compared to an average of about 80 percent for all schools in their respective regions and 76 percent statewide.

Fuller did not find that the students who left had significantly lower test scores than those who stayed. But he did find that the average fifth-grade scores for all students entering Harmony middle schools were higher than the state average. “Just because they're poor doesn’t mean they are low-performing” or come from unstable families, Fuller says. “You’re bringing in average-performing kids, and the ones who stay do great — which is great. But let’s not pretend these schools are taking the low-performing kids and really getting them to perform at high levels.”

If charters remain a relatively small part of the education system — a niche product — traditional public schools won’t be much affected by their presence, Fuller argues. But if they expand rapidly, especially in concentrated areas, he believes, they could increasingly exacerbate the condition of neighborhood public schools, which could become ghettos for students whose parents don’t bother to choose.  

Tarim counters that Harmony doesn’t claim to serve the most-troubled students. And while he acknowledges that students do leave the schools for a variety of reasons, he says academic struggles aren’t the major reason, and that the schools work hard to help kids who get behind to catch up — the schools offers one-on-one tutoring both at the end of the day and on Saturdays. The major factors driving some students away, he says, are the burden of transportation, strict discipline policies, the requirement of school uniforms, a homework load of about two hours per night and strongly encouraged after-school activities and volunteer hours for both students and parents. Further, such statistics in a young and growing organization are bound to fluctuate and should be viewed with caution. 

The bottom line, Tarim says, is that charters, by their very nature, rely on the choices of parents and students to attend, while most public schools simply have students assigned to them by neighborhood. Harmony respects every decision to enroll, stay or leave, he says. “Authentically being able to choose involves the ability to say yes or no,” he says. “We do not feel that a family’s choice to explore their options with respect to educating their children is an indictment.”

An oasis of calm

At HCSA, the new North Houston high school into which three other Harmony schools now feed, the talk at the lunch table among students is all about where they'll go to college: Stanford, MIT, UT, Rice. Unprompted, they shift the conversation to the differences between Harmony and the neighborhood public schools they would be otherwise attending.

They love the smaller schools and classes here and the talented teachers. But mostly they mention their classmates and the culture of the place. “There’s no drugs or violence. There’s no discrimination, no bullying — no nothing,” says Amrit Sandhu, a junior. “[At other schools] they have pregnant students and stuff. I think they’re going to open a separate school for pregnant students.”

The school’s “discipline point system” — an intricate system of demerits for everything from gum-chewing (2 points) to lying (10 points) and more serious misbehavior — tallies bad acts in a database that can be viewed at any time. Seventy-five points can get a student expelled, although Tarim says no Harmony school has yet to expel a student. “It’s all recorded, so your parents can access it even before the teacher tells them,” says junior Bryan Tobing, who seems genuinely enthused by the technology.

The system can be “pretty annoying,” Sandhu says. But it does make the school safe and calm, something many students here cited as perhaps the most important difference between Harmony and their neighborhood public schools. Adam Elwan, another junior, admits that Harmony isn’t for everyone — which he appreciates.

“A kid that likes to slack isn’t going to make it here because of all the rules,” he says. “This is the Harmony School of Advancement.”

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