BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — The state education board yesterday approved a controversial new charter school in Saugus whose district will include Salem, Peabody, Danvers and Lynn.
The Pioneer Charter School of Science II is scheduled to open in August for grades seven, eight and nine. It plans to expand by one grade each year before reaching a maximum of 360 students in grades seven through 12.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved the school, which had received the recommendation of Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, by a 6-4 vote.
The approval came despite concerns raised by teachers unions over the school’s possible ties to an Islamic movement led by Turkish scholar Fethullah Gulen.
In a letter sent to the state education board, teachers union presidents from the five communities that encompass the school’s district cited published reports suggesting that the school is part of a network of Turkish-led charter schools around the country.
The union presidents said they welcome exposing students to Turkish culture and language, but “our concerns are with the governance and business practices of these schools and the evasiveness about their ties to the Gulen movement.”
CBS’ “60 Minutes,” USA Today and The Boston Globe have all published reports on the network of schools loosely associated with the Gulen movement. According to a Boston Globe story, the Pioneer School of Science in Everett, which is expanding to create the Saugus school, spent taxpayer money to recruit teachers from Turkey and uses the same Turkish-led vendors as other Turkish-led schools.
The executive director’s welcome in the Pioneer School’s student handbook is also nearly identical to welcome messages in other Turkish-led charter schools’ handbooks, according to the report.
Barish Icin, Pioneer’s executive director, said yesterday that the school is not involved in the Gulen movement and is not affiliated with other Turkish-led charter schools.
“We don’t see any merit to those allegations,” he said. “Our parents, our students can testify to what is going on in our building (in Everett) every single day. A lot of that is coming from people who don’t want to see a charter school. It’s something they thought they could attack the school with. I advise them to come and see the schools.”
The Gulen allegations were raised by the state board during the approval process, with Pioneer directors denying any connection, according to a transcript of the interview.
In his recommendation, Chester said the Pioneer School II “demonstrates the greatest potential for creating a successful, high-quality public school that serves areas where demand and need are evident.”
The Lynn and Saugus school committees also opposed the school’s approval.
Icin said the school will most likely be located in Saugus, although the site has not yet been determined. School officials also looked at a site in Peabody as a possible backup if the Saugus locations fall through, he said.
The Pioneer School will provide transportation for students outside Saugus, he said. Students from any community are eligible to apply, but preference is given to students in the communities within the school’s district.
Icin said school officials decided to target Peabody and Danvers because they do not have a charter school. Salem does have one, Salem Academy, “but we believe they can still afford another high-quality charter school,” Icin said.
Charter schools are independent public schools that operate under five-year charters granted by the state education board. They are funded by tuition paid by the students’ home school districts.
Pioneer School will have an extended school day (8 a.m. to 3:35 p.m.) and will be in session for 200 days per year. It will have a “rigorous” math and science curriculum and free after-school tutoring, according to the school.
Pioneer officials also applied to start a charter school in Woburn, but Chester recommended against that proposal, saying the organization should not expand too quickly, Icin said. Chester also recommended against Pioneer’s request to expand its current school in Everett to a kindergarten-through-grade-12 school.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.