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Charter school brings some controversy to Baldwin Township

| Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011

The laughs and giggles of youngsters echo across the long, freshly painted hallways of the school on Newport Drive in Baldwin Township.

Students at Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania Charter School occupy classrooms once used as living quarters for residents of the former Rolling Hills Manor senior care facility. Walls now are adorned with world maps, the alphabet and finger paintings.

"I kind of love everything we do at this school," said fifth-grader Kevan Beemsterboer, 11.

The school for kindergarten through fifth grade students opened last month, and has 117 students from within a 10-mile radius. Students come from Pittsburgh, Baldwin-Whitehall, Keystone Oaks, Mt. Lebanon, West Jefferson Hills, Bethel Park, South Park, Chartiers Valley and Duquesne school districts.

The charter school's opening met with some controversy, however. Some Baldwin Township residents have been concerned about news reports earlier this year, including in The Philadelphia Inquirer, that the federal government has been investigating ties between some charter schools operated by Turkish administrators and led by charismatic Turkish leader, Fethullah Gulen.

Gulen is viewed by his adherents worldwide as a moral and spiritual leader who promotes and supports education. Gulen, who lives in the Poconos, says some schools follow the principles that he promotes, which include "tolerance and peace," according to his website.

The Inquirer report of a federal investigation, citing knowledgeable sources, linked administrators and practices at the Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School in State College to Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania, which has been described as its "sister school."

Alpaslan Ozdogan, chief executive officer of Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania, came there from the central Pennsylvania school, where he served as dean of academics. Ozdogan said his only connection to Gulen is that he has read Gulen's books and became inspired by him.

Ozdogan denied knowledge of any investigation of the State College school and says he came here because the Western Pennsylvania board wants an educational system similar to those at his previous school, including a curriculum emphasizing foreign languages, world cultures, a global outlook, small classes and academic achievement.

A different view

Kari Sawchak, 52, of Whitehall, says she decided to send her daughter, Starlett, a third-grader, to Young Scholars because its classes are smaller than those in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District and her daughter can learn languages other than English at a young age.

"She really seems to like it," said Sawchak. "She's not as stressed out this year."

Saidou Diallo, 10, who previously attended Schaeffer Elementary School in Pittsburgh's West End, said Young Scholars provides a learning environment that is more productive for him.

"At my old school, (students) didn't know how to behave," Saidou said. "I told my friends that this is a good school and this is a good area, too."

Tucked into small, middle-class Baldwin Township, the charter school served first as Rolling Hills Elementary School before Baldwin-Whitehall School District closed it. It later became Rolling Hills Manor.

In 2009, Mercy Behavioral Health applied to use the building as a "nursing home," but township residents fought the application. They said Mercy planned a mental health treatment facility. Commissioners ruled that the planned use did not fit the definition of a nursing home, and later in 2009 updated its zoning ordinances.

In May 2011, a nonprofit organization, Dream Schools of State College, using the name Newport Drive Properties, purchased the building and its 3.78-acre site for $800,000, according to Allegheny County real estate records. Dream Schools formed Newport Drive Properties, which is also a nonprofit organization, to purchase the property, school officials have said.

Back to a school again

Renovation began in the spring on one of two wings in the building. Other rooms, such as the library, are not yet finished because it took more than a year to get all the approvals needed to open.

The Baldwin-Whitehall School Board in February 2010 denied a charter application, but the state Department of Education granted it.

Township commissioners granted a conditional zoning use for the building in April. That occurred after residents appeared at meetings to ask if the school has connections to Gulen. Other residents defended the school.

Ozdogan said such questioning was typical at his previous job at Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania.

"We are transparent," he said. "We are getting judged by our nationality, our ethnicity."

Born in Turkey, Ozdogan received an undergraduate degree in Azerbaijan before coming to the United States in 2001. He received a master's degree in education and math at City University of New York.

"This country is a great place. That's what this country is all about -- diversity," he said. "There is nothing to hide in terms of who I am.

"(Turkish is) my nationality. What I believe and what I do and where I grew up is personal. That is separate from education."

Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania Charter School officials are reaching out to community leaders to make a connection, said Ozdogan, who added he recently met with Baldwin Township Police Chief Terrance O'Brien in an effort to get to know the community better.

"This school belongs to the community," he said.

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