Harmony charter schools beat odds on rise to the top in Texas
With little fanfare, the Harmony Academy system has become the powerhouse of the Texas charter school scene — easily surpassing KIPP and Yes Prep as the largest charter network in the state.
The 10-year-old public school chain has 33 campuses in Texas - including 11 in Houston. By 2012, Harmony expects enrollment to reach 24,000 - nearing KIPP's national enrollment.
Harmony's rise hasn't been completely quiet. The charter made national headlines after a group of West Texas parents, prior to an Odessa campus opening in 2010, accused its Turkish founder of being a mouthpiece for a well-known Islamic scholar, Muhammed Fethullah Gulen.
"Our goal was to voice our concerns, provide information to the citizens of Odessa and ask that everyone please be diligent about your own research of the Harmony Science Academy and the ties to other questionable organizations," according to a post on the West Texas Patriots website.
Superintendent Soner Tarim took to the front lines to respond to critics, explaining that charter schools are funded by tax dollars and cannot be sectarian organizations.
"That was a small town. They don't have a lot of diversity, and they have no idea who we are, what we do," Tarim said. "They don't understand how charter school laws work."
The Legislature created charters in 1995 to provide Texas families alternatives to traditional schools. Nearly 120,000 students attended open-enrollment charter schools in 2010.
Tarim, who earns $143,000 as superintendent, welcomes naysayers to his campuses, 23 of which received one of the state's top two academic ratings in 2010. The two other rated campuses were deemed acceptable.
The unwanted attention has not deterred expansion: Roughly 21,000 families signed up to be on Harmony's waiting list prior to the start of this school year. Campuses are at capacity, academic performance remains strong and the charter system continues to be in good standing with the Texas Education Agency.
Students say they prefer Harmony's small student-teacher ratio, usually 12-to-1.
"At my old school, they barely knew my name," said eighth-grader Diana Acosta, who attended Welch Middle School in HISD before transferring last year to Harmony School of Art and Technology on Kirby.
Help from economy
Harmony students regularly earn top honors at science and robotics competitions. Collectively, the schools teach nine languages, including Vietnamese, Russian and Turkish, in addition to the typical offerings such as Spanish and French.
And even as charter schools statewide face funding and facilities hurdles, Harmony Academy has taken advantage of the lackluster economy. Its leaders secured bond funds and used stimulus money to build their first new campuses - which are polished, if not flashy, compared to their original schools in strip malls, former churches and abandoned big box stores.
"They're rapidly becoming an alternative public school system," said State Board of Education member David Bradley, a conservative from Beaumont who supports Harmony's expansion.
High unemployment rates mean that Harmony has had the pick of displaced scientists-turned-teachers.
Houston professionals have taken the place of some of the Turkish-born educators who were brought in on H-1B Work Visas to carry out Harmony Science's original mission to prepare Texas students for careers in math and science. About 275 employees - or 18 percent of Harmony's workforce - hold those visas, including many who were already here earning advanced degrees at universities.
Harmony Science is expanding its focus at new campuses to include specialties such as political science, language and nature.
At the new Harmony campus on Kirby, for example, classes include ceramics, pottery, jewelry, painting, music and digital art. The school's 400 students have access to private music rooms and three kilns, among other resources.
One of Harmony's newest Houston locations moved into a vacant pharmaceutical office building. The campus has a medical focus, and students do their experiments in state-of-the-art laboratories.
The science focus provides more of a challenge for Fort Bend County mother Jamie Taylor's two young children.
"As soon as I got here, I was immediately sold," she said, adding that concerns about the schools' Turkish ties didn't scare her away.
"As Texan as I am, I thought they were a bunch of rednecks who didn't do their homework," she said. "This is not a Gï¿½len school. It's not a Muslim school."
One of the few consequences of the early criticism was that administrators opted to remove teachers' e-mail addresses from the public portion of the school websites after some received hate mail.
While the chain might benefit from being more transparent and by employing more home-grown talent, experts aren't concerned about improper religious connections.
"Some of the criticism on the Web is just absurd. They seem to be turning out biologists and chemists rather than terrorists," said William Martin, a senior fellow for religion and public policy for the Baker Institute at Rice University.
Harmony Science is now gaining the kind of national recognition enjoyed by KIPP and YES.
Tamin admits that his school system still faces an uphill battle, as do all young charters. About 70 percent of Harmony students are still in K-8, with additional grade levels added each year at the newer campuses.
Having already surpassed its original growth targets, Harmony leaders are preparing to re-evaluate their progress. Teacher quality and student performance remain atop the priority list. Harmony also plans to continue to grow, although likely at a slower clip than in the past several years.
"I just ignore a lot of the criticism. I look at the big picture," Tarim said.
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