“Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania Charter School will be the first multilingual and multicultural elementary school in the greater Pittsburgh area,” said Kim Gales-Dunn of J.R. Gales & Associates, Inc., “with a unique and proactive alternative to traditional public education.
“It provides an ideal, dynamic, global-learning environment for the intellectual and social development of its students.”
Gales-Dunn, who works for the civil-engineering company hired by Young Scholars to submit a “Conditional Use Approval” application to open a public charter school in Baldwin Township, began the interview portion of Monday night’s Baldwin Township Planning Commission meeting with those statements.
She stuck to those guns all night, as did Attorney Robert B. Brown Jr. of Sherrard, German, & Kelly, P.C., who represents Newport Drive Properties; and Melih Demirkan, a Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania Charter School board member, who represents the school itself.
Newport Drive Properties, which is owned by the company “Dream Schools, Inc.,” was the official applicant at the township’s Planning Commission meeting Monday night, but Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania was officially added as a co-applicant before Gales-Dunn, Brown and Demirkan faced the Board of Commissioners later that night.
While Young Scholars hired J.R. Gales & Associates, Newport Drive Properties has no relationship with Young Scholars other than its desire to lease space to the school.
“Other than the relationship of landlord and tenant,” Brown said, “there is no relationship between Newport Drive Properties and Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania.
“Dream Schools … owns Newport Drive Properties. Newport Drive Properties is the real-estate holding company. It will be a single-purpose company formed solely for the purpose of owning this property and then leasing it out.”
Brown was referring to 600 Newport Drive, which formerly served as a nursing home and as a school before that. The current owner of 600 Newport – a 30,000-square-foot property – is “SNH/LTA Properties Trust,” according to the Allegheny County Assessment website.
Both Gales-Dunn and Demirkan said that the fact that 600 Newport previously served as a school is one of the biggest reasons why that location was chosen for Young Scholars. Also because of that fact – and a big reason why the school’s application before the township is “conditional” in nature – construction at 600 Newport in preparation for Young Scholars would be interior only and thus would not include any exterior additions or major exterior renovations.
“The school will be for primarily Baldwin-Whitehall students,” Demirkan told both the Planning Commission and the Board of Commissioners, noting that Young Scholars would only enroll students from outside of the if it could not fill its classrooms with exclusively B-W students.
Demirkan said that the school would be tuition-free and that classrooms would not exceed 20 students each.
He said that, other than a student being a Baldwin-Whitehall resident, students would not be given preference for selection.
“It’s like regular public school,” Demirkan said.
Young Scholars hopes to open this coming fall with 120 students its first academic year, followed by more students each year after that until it reaches 180 by 2015.
“Students will have to apply,” Demirkan said. “If there are more than 120 applications (for this coming fall), then there will be a lottery process.
“There is (sic) no selection criteria,” he said, except that, for the school’s first academic year, it would only be open for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“Any student who is enrolled in any school district in the greater Pittsburgh area can apply.
“There is (sic) no criteria. We cannot do that, because this is a public school.”
After at least one academic year, the school would like to eventually include students up to eighth grade.
Should the school ever exceed 180 enrolled students, it would have to gain approval again.
Demirkan said that the school would employee 12 full-time teachers and three full-time administrative officers in its first year. The school would also employ part-time teachers for classes in art and music.
He said that 30 percent of Young Scholars’ teachers could work without a state teaching license due to state charter law.
“Since we’re going to teach foreign languages,” Demirkan said, “it’s very difficult to have certified foreign-language teachers.
“That’s (30 percent is) the allowance from the law … If we can find certified teachers, we’ll be happy to hire them. Eventually, we’ll encourage our teachers to get certification when they start at the school.”
Demirkan said that Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania does not have any formal or official affiliation with any other schools.
“But a charter school in State College (Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania), we consider it as our sister school,” he said.
Demirkan said that it would have a similar curriculum as the State College school and that some of the proposed Baldwin Township school’s board members have previously worked at the State College school.
“That’s the only affiliation that we have with the school in State College,” he said. “If you look at our curriculum system, it’s very similar. We have small adjustments to the local community here.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Education has granted accreditation to the Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania Charter School.
Having felt satisfied with Young Scholars’ application and Gales-Dunn’s, Brown’s and Demirkan’s responses to interview questions, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend that the township’s Board of Commissioners approve the use of 600 Newport Drive as a public school.
The Planning Commission meeting adjourned, and the Board of Commissioners meeting began shortly after.
Brown noted at the start of the Board of Commissioners meeting that Dream Schools, Newport Drive Properties and Young Scholars are all Pennsylvania nonprofit organizations.
Gales-Dunn, Brown and Demirkan were not subjected to questions from Baldwin Township residents during the Planning Commission meeting, but the Board of Commissioners meeting was a different story.
Numerous residents posed questions, including Jim Fandray of 822 Rolling Rock Road, who asked Demirkan if he knew of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic political figure believed to be residing in Eastern Pennsylvania.
Demirkan said that he did not know Gulen personally but that he had heard of him.
“He is a very well-known figure in Turkey, where I came from,” Demirkan said. “We don’t have any affiliation or anything.”
Fandray then asked Demirkan if he knew that Gulen was involved in an FBI investigation, but the Board of Commissioners informed Demirkan that he did not have to answer that question since Young Scholars’ application is unrelated to Fandray’s questioning.
However, before the board could intervene, Demirkan could be heard replying, “No.”
The board also denied Fandray’s questioning of the legality of soliciting signatures from district residents in regard to obtaining a legal charter to found the proposed school.
“This is a zoning hearing,” said Tom McDermott, township solicitor. “Questions regarding the matter should be geared toward the topic of the zoning classification …”
Fandray objected, but McDermott responded, “We are able to regulate the scope of questioning geared toward relevance to why we’re here.”
This article published in the Centre Daily Times on March 22 supports Fandray’s claim of an FBI investigation of Gulen and the Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School.
That article reads:
“The Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School in Ferguson Township is one of more than 100 charter schools across the country that are the (sic) part of a federal investigation, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Sunday(, March 20).
“A spokeswoman from the U.S. Attorney’s Office would not confirm the report Monday, (March 21,) saying the office does not comment on anything that is or may be under investigation.
“The newspaper cited unidentified knowledgeable sources to say that ‘federal agencies — including the FBI and the departments of Labor and Education — are investigating whether some charter school employees are kicking back part of their salaries to a Muslim movement founded by (Fethullah) Gulen,’ a major Islamic political figure in Turkey.
“Attorneys for Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the Poconos, argued that he had ‘overseen the establishment of a conglomeration of schools throughout the world’ when he successfully argued to be granted a green card in the United States.”
Gulen’s website can be seen here.
Fandray told the Baldwin-Whitehall Patch that he had no specific line of questioning in mind for Demirkan at Monday night’s meetings.
“I was just gonna drill ’im,” Fandray said.
Another resident asked Demirkan if Young Scholars chose the Baldwin-Whitehall area because of its large refugee population.
“They (refugees) are not our target students,” Demirkan said, “for the record.
“We will have a stronger ESL (English a Second Language) program than regular public schools, but we are not targeting any particular student demography.”
The township’s Board of Commissioners will vote on whether or not to approve Newport Drive Properties/Young Scholars’ application at another public meeting at the on Community Park Drive on Tuesday, April 5, at 7:30 p.m.
In February of last year, the Baldwin-Whitehall school board rejected Young Scholars opening in its district, but the board was overruled by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Funding for Young Scholars would come from the school districts that its students reside in, just like other public schools’ funding normally would.
Students living in Baldwin-Whitehall that do not attend Baldwin-Whitehall school district schools are still bussed by the Baldwin-Whitehall school district to any school that they choose to go to as long as those schools are within 10 miles of Baldwin-Whitehall borders.
Young Scholars would be inside Baldwin Township, and therefore, that qualifies.
Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania is planning its first open house session for Thursday, April 7, at 7 p.m. However, the session will be held at 4143 Brownsville Road, Suite No. 6, in Brentwood Borough, instead of on Newport Drive.