One former student says school officials paid him and a friend $20 each to fill in hundreds of standardized test forms. A parent of another former student says her daughter earned a stellar attendance record when she didn’t go to class for months.
Both of these claims echo concerns raised by a growing chorus of former teachers from the Dayton-area Horizon Science Academy charter schools who told the Dayton Daily News that school officials tampered with tests, fudged attendance records and cut corners in ways that compromised student education.
Meanwhile, new details have emerged about an ongoing FBI investigation of the schools’ management company, Concept Schools. The probe appears focused on a federal program that provides grants for technology, and targets top officials at the Illinois-based non-profit and Ohio businessmen with connections to the schools, according to search warrants obtained by news organizations.
The Horizon schools are among 19 in Ohio and 30 nationwide managed by Concept Schools, a nonprofit affiliated with the Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. Concept Schools is paid 12 percent of each schools’ state funding, according to state audit documents.
In Ohio, the nonprofit’s schools received a combined $47.1 million in state funding so far this year to teach 6,291 students.
Nine former teachers and several former students have stepped forward in recent weeks to demand a thorough investigation of the charter school chain.
“It’s what the students and the taxpayers deserve, making sure no students or teachers have to go through what we were going through…and making sure taxpayer dollars are being spent appropriately,” said Kellie Kochensparger, who taught at the school from 2010 to 2013.
The Ohio Department of Education and Ohio Auditor’s Office have pledged to look into the claims.
Allegations of cheating
Former Horizon Science Academy Dayton High School student Hakkimte Sun alleges that school officials paid him and a friend $20 each to sit in a small office and fill in bubbles on standardized tests.
It was Spring 2010 — Sun’s junior year — and he said he and the friend often stayed after school to work on homework and drawings. When they stopped into school assistant director Ergun Sevilmis’ office, he asked them: “‘Do you want to get paid to do something?’” said Sun, now 21.
According to Sun, Sevilmis escorted them to a small office where hundreds of filled-out test sheets were in boxes. The administrator instructed the students to darken bubbles on the test sheets that had marks through them and, if they wanted, to fill in questions that weren’t answered, Sun said. The former student said he darkened only the already answered questions because, “I was lazy.”
“They told me it was ESL (English as a second language) students,” Sun said.
For an hour that day and the next, Sun said he and his friend darkened answers on hundreds of tests. After he was paid, he said he went out for a pizza. He said he was asked to do it again a week later but declined because it wasn’t worth the effort.
The Daily News was unable to corroborate Sun’s account through the school and Sevilmis, who is no longer at the school and could not be reached for comment. But Sun is not the only person connected to the school who says tests were tampered with.
In the Spring of 2012 English teacher Melissa Randolph said she stopped into Sevilmis’ office, where he was sitting with two men she did not recognize and a pile of standardized tests.
She said she asked him what was going on.
“His response was we’re darkening the questions to make sure they can be read by the machine,” she said.
Former social studies teacher Matt Blair said in Spring 2005 he had a similar situation with a different administrator. He said he came in on a Saturday and saw a large group of men. “They were sitting at desks and had little stacks of tests on the desks.”
Blair said his principal later came up to him and said, “‘Hey Matt, nothing is going on down there. We were just darkening in circles for kids who didn’t know how to darken in circles.’”
Ohio Department of Education spokesman John Charlton said rules prohibit anyone from tampering with test forms.
“If that actually happened, that would be a test violation,” he said of Sun’s claims. “If we heard a complaint like that, we would investigate.”
Critics of how the state has overseen charter schools wonder how in-depth the investigation will be. Blair went public with his allegations in a blog post in January, which led ODE to send an email to the school’s sponsor directing them to look into it.
“Feel welcome to keep your responses brief and ‘positive,’” the state charter specialist wrote to the sponsor. Charlton later called this “a bad choice of words.”
The sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, replied two days later by saying the school has a written test handling policy and “we do not have any reason to believe that this is an active concern.”
‘She really wasn’t there’
A parent whose daughter attended Horizon Science Academy Dayton High School last year said attendance records at the school were altered, an allegation corroborated by two of the student’s teachers.
When Melissa Watkins received the end-of-year report card for her daughter Skylar’s freshman year, she was caught off guard. It said she had missed only 15 days of school.
Skylar had severe headaches and other issues that kept her out of school almost all of the second and third quarters, her mother said.
“She didn’t go into the school physically all fall and winter,” Melissa Watkins said. “She went to work with me or she went to grandma’s house because she couldn’t be left alone.”
Two teachers told the Daily News they were instructed to mark Skylar as “present” in attendance forms because school administrators said they were sending a tutor to her house.
But, said Watkins, “Nobody showed up at my house, ever. She was at my work in Tipp City.”
Charter schools are paid based on monthly enrollment numbers, as opposed to traditional public schools that take enrollment one week a year.
Former Horizon English teacher Michelle VanVleet, one of those instructed to say Skylar was present, said she gave her a failing grade because no school work was turned in.
“For the most part, she really wasn’t there,” she said. VanVleet shared an email from Assistant Dean of Students Twanisha Harris directing teachers to mark Skylar as present “as she is receiving home instruction.”
Skylar failed her freshman year with a 1.96 GPA, though she received A’s in algebra, health and physical education; and C’s in art, physical science and Spanish.
Watkins says she understands why her daughter, who will attend Wayne High School in Huber Heights this fall, has to repeat her freshman year.
“The problem is the fact that on her permanent record it shows she failed,” she said. “She doesn’t deserve that.”
Teacher: School ‘lied’
VanVleet, who left the school in June, said teachers are allowed only a certain number of failing students.
“If you had more than so many F’s in the class, they would start looking at you,” she said.
Tim Neary, who taught science at the Horizon high school from 2009 to 2011, told the state board of education earlier this month that “school administrators clearly lied about attendance.”
“I never had a full class and they’d say the school had 97 percent attendance rate,” he said. “I guess that was an easy one to fudge. There was no oversight at all.”
Horizon’s Dayton schools have an attendance rate around 92 percent. This is comparable to Dayton elementary schools, but is higher than most Dayton high schools, according to state attendance data.
Several teachers interviewed said they taught different subjects and grade levels than the ones for which they were trained.
In the one year Callie Kelley worked for Horizon Science Academy through the federal Teach for America program, she had three different jobs. For two months, she was a Spanish teacher.
“I didn’t really speak Spanish,” said Kelley, whose degree is in social work from Northern Kentucky University.
Later that year, she became the science teacher. “I was handed a book. I had a lab. I had a bunch of random chemicals, and I was told to make a curriculum,” she said.
Unlike at traditional public schools, charter schools are not held to the same requirement that teachers only teach what is on their license.
High school Spanish teacher Stephen Rudnicki said he quit in 2013 after working at Horizon for five years because school officials wanted him to work at the elementary school on Monmouth Drive in Dayton.
“I’m a high school teacher, not an elementary school teacher,” he said.
Rudnicki said low pay and quality of work issues led to high turnover, with some classrooms having four or more teachers in one year.
To combat turnover, the school put a provision in its teachers contracts requiring teachers to pay a penalty of 10 percent of their salary if they quit mid-year. It’s called “liquidated damages,” according to a copy of the contract obtained by the Daily News.
Teachers also expressed concern over the qualifications of teachers hired from Turkey and working on H-1B visas. A 2011 investigation by this newspaper found the school had hired dozens of employees under visas, and they were generally paid more than their American counterparts, according to salary data from the conservative Buckeye Institute.
“It was a Turkish organization. All the building construction was done by Turkish companies. The building owner was in Turkey. The Turkish teachers always made more money than the Americans, and many of the Turks did not have teaching licenses or background checks,” Melissa Randolph testified before the state board.
The Daily News requested from the school a list of all teachers and their licenses and had not received a response by press time.
School administrators would not comment on any of these issues on the record. The only response came from Concept Schools:
“Recent claims about our schools do not represent or reflect the high standards we hold for our organization,” it says “We take them very seriously, and have already begun an internal review of them. We continue to work closely with stakeholders and parents to ensure our students are getting the kind of educational experience they deserve.”
Feds probe $4.5M payout
Federal agents have served search warrants at 19 schools in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, including the schools in Dayton, which include the elementary and high school at 250 Shoup Mill Road and an elementary school at 121 S. Monmouth St.
A federal search warrant obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times says that on June 4 federal agents were directed to seize documents related to the federal E-Rate program, as well as documents related to companies and businessmen in Ohio and Illinois.
E-Rate is a program that provides federal grants for computers, internet access and other telecommunications equipment to libraries and schools.
An analysis of federal payment data shows Horizon schools in Ohio have received nearly $4.5 million through the E-Rate program since 2003. That’s the time period listed in the search warrant. The schools in Dayton last received $368,161 in 2012.
Among the records collected were those pertaining to Ohio-based company Advanced Solutions for Education or its owner, Ozgur Balsoy. The for-profit company helped Concept Schools apply for E-Rate funding, the Sun-Times reported.
Advanced Solutions for Education is based in Mentor, according to state records. It was incorporated in 2009 by Balsoy, a former administrator at Horizon Science Academy in Columbus.
Bolsoy has incorporated five non-profits on Ohio, including Concept Schools-Ohio, Inc., in 2006; and Horizon Science Academy, Inc. in Columbus in 2007. The other non-profits are called Ohio Learning (incorporated 2005), the Social and Educational Research Institute (2008) and the SHIFA Foundation of America (2009).
Former teachers from the Dayton schools said Advanced Solutions for Education also provided the teachers’ professional development.
The FBI probe goes to the top of Concept Schools. The search warrant served in Illinois included documents reflecting the compensation package and other information for CEO Sedat Duman and information technology director Huseyin Ulker.
Allegations called ‘baseless’
Local Horizon school officials said the FBI’s seizure of records has contributed to their inability to provide public records by press time, since some of the records are in federal custody. Among the requested records are school board minutes and copies of contracts executed by the school board.
Horizon Science Academy Dayton High School lists five board members on its website: Ohio University Professor Savas Kaya, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center doctor Kakajan Komurov, University of Cincinnati assistant professor Ersin Deger, University of Cincinnati professor Harun Tadik and University of Cincinnati professor Ramin Ahmadaghlu.
In addition to serving on the school board, Kaya is listed in tax records as secretary on the board of New Plan Learning Inc., the non-profit that owns the high school’s building on Shoup Mill Road and serves as its landlord. Kaya is also listed with as a founding director of Concept Schools–Ohio, Inc.
In a statement released to the Daily News, Kaya wrote: “Horizon Science Academy-Dayton High school entered into an lease agreement with New Plan Learning in 2011. I joined the Horizon Science Academy-Dayton High School Board in October 2102. Therefore, no conflict of interest existed when the lease was signed. Since I joined the school board, I recuse myself from such decisions on the Horizon Science Academy-Dayton High School board to prevent any potential conflict of interest.”
Teachers have outlined further concerns, including discrimination against non-Turkish students, claims that students were threatened, and allegations that parents were not told about an incident where children were caught on camera engaging in oral sex.
“My biggest concern with the school is the kids are not getting a good education, and they’re being treated unfairly,” said former teacher Callie Kelley. “Our kids are not prepared for college. Shoot, they’re not prepared for the next grade.”
“They’re very smart kids,” she said.
The next school year begins in a couple of weeks, and a large banner hangs outside the school that says, “Now Enrolling.”
A yellow piece of paper taped to the front door says the school’s next board meeting is scheduled for Aug. 9.
Inside, parents who are concerned about what former teachers are saying are handed a one-page form that says, in part: “These claims were made by former employees, and do not reflect the high standards we hold for ourselves. Although we know that most of these allegations are baseless, we still take them very seriously.
“Indeed, we place the highest priority on providing safe, secure and professional environments for all of our students and faculty.”
Staff writers Will Garbe and Drew Simon contributed to this report.