Kenilworth charter renewed despite tangled history

Six days before state and federal agents raided Kenilworth Science and Technology Charter School in Baton Rouge, confiscating boxes of records Wednesday, the middle school easily earned state approval to keep operating until 2019.

That decision came despite the abrupt closure in 2011 of its sister school in New Orleans for a variety of problems, a subsequent investigation of Kenilworth, and evidence of inquiries by federal authorities going back to 2010, the year after the charter school opened its doors.

Officials of the FBI, the state Office of Inspector General and the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office were involved in Wednesday’s raid.

Investigators declined to explain the action.

Mary Beth Romig, an FBI spokeswoman, said the raid did not involve public safety, but she refused further comment Thursday.

“We were just reassuring people in this climate of active shooters in schools,” she said.

The school houses about 560 students in grades 6-8.

Parents picking up their children from school on Thursday mostly expressed satisfaction with the school, though several were unaware what had happened the day before.

“It doesn’t seem to have affected the everyday workings of the school,” said Sandra Ashley, whose son is a seventh grader at Kenilworth.

She said it seemed like many Kenilworth teachers cared about their students, offering “Saturday school” to struggling students as well as making home visits if needed, Ashley said.

“My son has had an awesome experience there,” she said.

On Thursday afternoon, Hasan Suzuk, the school’s principal, sent an email to parents informing them the school had been “visited on Wednesday by law enforcement agents who requested access to certain documents and records.”

“School officials are cooperating fully with these authorities,” the letter adds. “Kenilworth has always operated in a legal and ethical manner and will continue to do so.”

Kenilworth’s next board meeting was scheduled for Saturday morning but has been postponed. Mark Lambert, a spokesman for the school, said the postponement was prompted by scheduling conflicts and was unrelated to the raid.

The Dec. 5 renewal of Kenilworth’s charter for five more years breezed through the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, with no hint of the controversy to come.

Carolyn Hill, whose BESE district includes Kenilworth, voted against the five-year extension, but said she did so not because of any specific criticism of the school but because she objected to it being lumped in with others for final approval.

In documents provided to BESE, officials of the state Department of Education said they found “no fundamental violation of legal and contractual standards” in its review of the school.

Kenilworth has steadily improved its academic rankings since 2009 when it took over a traditional, but chronically low-performing Baton Rouge middle school, also called Kenilworth. The charter school earned a C from the state for the 2012-13 school year, the most recent available, up from an F in the previous year.

Despite the extension, the school, like others with state-issued charters, could have its charter revoked if the state determines it has violated the terms spelled out in the agreement. These terms include failing to meet or pursue certain academic goals, failing to meet accounting procedures for fiscal management or violating any law applicable to the school, its officers or employees.

Asked for comment on Wednesday’s raid, state Superintendent of Education John White’s office released a letter he sent Thursday to state Inspector General Stephen Street promising to assist in the investigation. The superintendent said he became aware of the investigation on Wednesday.

Chas Roemer, who lives in Baton Rouge and is president of BESE, did not return a call for comment.

Charter schools are public schools run by private groups. They are expected to offer innovative classrooms without the red tape that typically accompanies traditional public schools. The state has more than 100 charters schools.

Kenilworth is overseen by Pelican Educational Foundation Inc., headquartered in Baton Rouge. Pelican is the same firm that oversaw Abramson Science and Technology Charter School in New Orleans, which had its charter rescinded by BESE in 2011. Documents show that state officials had raised serious concerns about Abramson in 2010.

State auditors, responding to complaints from teachers, visited the school and encountered rooms full of unused lab equipment and students who complained of teachers who could not communicate in English and did their science projects for them.

One state official described an alleged attempt by a contractor associated with the school to bribe him.

In the background were unanswered questions about the school’s connection to a global movement founded by a Turkish Islamic scholar named Fethullah G├╝len.

Pelican officials at the time vigorously defended the school, denied the bribery charge and even pursued a failed lawsuit against the state to try to keep the school open.

Kenilworth was the target of a state investigation that began in July 2011, in part because it too is overseen by Pelican.

Emails and documents provided after a public records request show that state education officials raised questions about how the school handled special education, which involves federal dollars. State officials told the school’s principal that the ratio of special education teachers to students needed attention.

The state also questioned Kenilworth’s high number of uncertified teachers, and investigated reports from parents of a “prayer room” at the school apparently used by some teachers and outsiders, all of Turkish descent.

A state official said at the time that the concern was that only those teachers with Turkish ties were given time to pray. While state educators never announced any resolution of the issues, the department’s decision to recommend the five-year extension of the charter suggests any disputes were resolved.

During that same time period, federal authorities appear to have been monitoring Kenilworth.

A former Kenilworth teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said she was interviewed by the FBI several times in fall 2010. Almost a year later in August 2011, she said, she spoke twice on the phone with a man who identified himself as part of a criminal task force looking into Kenilworth, a task force that included the U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General Office.

In both cases, she said, she detailed to federal officials a variety of concerns she had about the school, giving them the “lay of the land.” She said she talked about potential siphoning of federal special education funds for other uses, as well as more general concerns she had about its intricate connections to other Turkish-run charter schools and institutions.

“I do know that they were interested (in what I had to say) and seemed interested in the architecture of the place,” she said.

Contributing to this report were Advocate staff writers Jim Mustian, Andrew Vanacore and Ben Wallace