A Framework for Creating an Effective Afterschool Program for Social and Behavioral Skills

Sydney Babiak

Edgar Aviña

PLSC 240/EDST 245 Public Schools & Public Policy


Estimates suggest that more than 7 million children in the United States are without adult supervision for at least some period of time after school. 800,000 elementary school and 2.2 million middle school students are on their own when they leave school (“Taking a Deeper Dive” 4). This unsupervised time puts children at risk for negative outcomes such as academic and behavioral problems, drug use and other types of risky behavior, yet schools with a need to slash costs in an era of constrained budgets often choose to scrap their afterschool programming. Many schools and districts rationalize these cuts by arguing that afterschool programs just do not generate enough payoffs to justify the costs of programming and personnel.

Contrary to this logic, hundreds of studies have documented the positive and statistically significant effects of afterschool programming on academic achievement (“Taking a Deeper Dive” 4) . However, the effects of afterschool programming on social and behavioral skills have received much less attention, in part because measuring progress on social and behavioral skills is more difficult, but also because it has just been relatively under-discussed among most scholars until recently.

This paper argues that afterschool programs that focus on social and behavioral skills are more beneficial to students than those that focus on academics. We will also highlight one framework for structuring afterschool programming that will successfully help children cultivate strong social and behavioral skills, which we are defining as “the cognitive, affective, and behavioral competencies necessary for a young person to be successful in school, work, and life” (“Supporting Social and Emotional Development Through Quality Afterschool Programs” 2). We hope that this paper will help contribute to the conversation about what well-designed afterschool programming focusing on social and behavioral skills might look like. While other studies have examined the positive outcomes of programs that focuses on social and behavioral skills, this report is the first to connect these successes to a specific framework of instruction and curriculum. The need for afterschool programming is ubiquitous, and we must work diligently to create quality programs that genuinely help advance student social and behavioral skills.


For this report, we researched current strategies in afterschool programming and chose a particular design that we wanted to highlight as potentially impactful. We then used data from studies at various universities and organizations. Many of the projects we pulled from did not answer our questions or implement the CASEL structure exactly, but usually had information on some component of either the effectiveness of afterschool programs, social and behavioral curriculum, or active engagement with students that we could then conceptually connect with the model we were highlighting. We then chose two afterschool programs we found details about within a few of our more comprehensive sources and analyzed their engagement with our the CASEL framework. We designed a few graphics using Google Sheets and the SmartArt functionality in Microsoft Word in order to better illustrate some of our points.

The CASEL Framework of Instruction and Curriculum

CASEL has analyzed dozens of afterschool programs over the past two decades, and has developed their own proposal for how to structure an afterschool program that meaningfully enhances social and behavioral skills. This framework has two parts: SAFE, the methods by which instruction should be given, and the CASEL competency clusters, which are the recommended focus points for the instruction. Each will be presented in turn below.

Figure 1 is a visual representation of how the framework is supposed to operate. All afterschool programs using the CASEL frameworks should have the same instructional strategies (the SAFE method), but each might focus on one or more CASEL competency in particular.

Figure 1

A visual representation of the CASEL Framework of afterschool programming


In 2004, CASEL analyzed 73 afterschool programs and found a series of four structural qualities that effective afterschool programming requires to achieve substantive gains in social and behavioral skills. An effective program must be Sequential, Active, Focused, and Explicit.

Programs must be Sequential because new social and behavioral skills cannot be acquired instantaneously (Durlak and Weissberg, “The Impact of Afterschool” 28). Social and behavioral skills are complex, which means that they have to be broken down into smaller components that can be taught sequentially with an ultimately cumulative end goal. Teaching must be linear, and follow a logical progression.

Programs must be Active because students are entering afterschool programs after a full day of regular school, which can mean they will be easily antsy, bored, and distracted. To ensure student engagement, the teaching must be active and involved; students should not be sitting in a room being lectured to when they have already endured a full day of schooling. Moreover, evidence indicates that youth learn best from active engagement where they have chances to practice new behaviors and receive feedback on their performance (Protheroe 3), such as practicing social and behavioral skills through “role playing and other types of behavioral rehearsal strategies” (Durlak and Weissberg, “The Impact of Afterschool” 26), for example.  A sequence of practice and feedback should continue until mastery is achieved. Hands-on forms of learning are much preferred over exclusively didactic instruction, which rarely translates into long-term learning (Durlak and Weissberg, “The Impact of Afterschool” 28).

Afterschool programming must be also be Focused on social and behavioral skills—teaching on the development of these skills cannot be merely interspersed sporadically in the program. Many afterschool programs fail to inculcate students with valuable skills precisely because they do not develop focused programming that addresses specific growth areas for students, but rather just operate without any particular direction or goals. Moreover, the content of the programming must be Explicit in communicating to students clearly what the learning objective is. If the goal is to improve self-esteem, that goal must be communicated clearly to students.

SAFE has proven particularly effective in increasing self-esteem, self-efficacy , improved attitudes toward self and school, and social and communication skills. Figure 2 shows data collected by CASEL on the observed positive benefits of programs that used the SAFE methods and those that did not.

Figure 2

Average percentile gains on selected outcomes for participants in SAFE and Other Afterschool Programs

CASEL Competencies

In their research brief titled Supporting Social and Emotional Development Through Quality Afterschool Programs, CASEL defines five competency clusters that they found critical for young people’s success in school, work, and life (Devaney 2):

  • Self-awareness: the ability to understand one’s emotions, and how these emotions influence behavior
  • Self-management: the ability to calm down when upset, set and work towards goals, and to manage/control emotions
  • Social awareness: the ability to recognize what’s appropriate in certain settings, and to empathize with others
  • Responsible decision making: the ability to make decisions that account for social standards, consequences, and context
  • Relationship skills: the ability to communicate well, listen and respond appropriately, and to negotiate conflict

CASEL believes these competencies can be taught through explicit curricula or school/classroom-wide interventions that integrate them into every aspect of the school day, such as through collaborative projects in class or facilitated activities at recess. The research brief emphasizes that afterschool programs can do either, and that the best of these programs will teach these use this framework to instill grit, self-control, and growth in its participants (Devaney 4). CASEL’s study also found that consistent participation in programs using SAFE and the CASEL framework led to improvements in peer relationships, sense of self-worth, altruism, prosocial behavior, and decreased problematic behavior (Devaney 5).

Other analyses of afterschool programs with similar frameworks (that emphasize the same competencies but do not explicitly associate with CASEL) also found overwhelmingly positive results with regards to social and behavioral outcomes. Several studies at the School of Education at UC Irvine, like their peers at CASEL, also saw improvements in peer relationships and prosocial behavior, in addition to progress in engagement, intrinsic motivation, concentrated effort, and positive mindsets (Devaney 5).

The Youth Development Research Project at the University of Illinois also reported impressive effort and engagement in their analyses:

…youth report building skills in motivation and effort from participating in youth programs– in particular, youth voluntarily engage in challenging work in youth programs, are committed to completing the work, and therefore put in the effort and make the connection between hard work and results. Youth then learn these behaviors and can engage in strategic thinking and persistent behavior outside the youth program. (Devaney 5)

Collectively, these studies all provide evidence of how concerted focus on key non-academic characteristics in an afterschool program can lead to the development of crucial skills for not only a student’s academics, but for their life to come. This dual benefit is largely what makes afterschool programs that center around social and behavioral learning more fruitful and efficient than their counterparts.


Recent studies provide quantitative evidence that participation in programs that focus on the CASEL competency clusters and use the SAFE method of instruction– rather than just focusing on academics– yield improvements in social and behavioral skills. As discussed previously, these skills are critical for a young person’s success in school, work, and life.

A study of 73 afterschool programs that targeted personal and social skills found that “solid” training approaches included sequenced activities to achieve skill objectives, active learning, and explicit focus on personal or social skills. According to the study, “These programs showed significant positive benefits in terms of student self-confidence, positive social behaviors, and achievement test scores” (David 84). Other observed programs that did not use these same approaches did not produce improvement in any of these outcomes (David 84). The researchers in this study maintain that, “…programs without an academic component can nevertheless demonstrate increases in student achievement, whereas many programs focused on achievement fail to do so” (David 85). Therein we see why afterschool programs must begin to shift their focus towards developing fundamental social and behavioral skills first before approaching academics: building the blocks of sustainable interpersonal aptitudes in young children will set the stage for success in school both immediately and for the rest of a student’s academic career.

A report from Joseph A. Durlak and Roger P. Weissberg reviewed 68 studies on afterschool programs with specific goals of fostering personal and social development (CASEL competencies) compared to control groups of non-participating youth (“Afterschool Programs” 2). Table 1 compares the mean effect sizes of the experimental (SAFE-modeled programs focused on social and behavioral development) and these control groups (Durlak and Weissberg, “Afterschool Programs” 3). The data shows significant positive outcomes for students in afterschool programs that use the CASEL framework compared to those that do not, with particular advantages in school bonding, self-perceptions, and positive social behaviors.

Table 1

The mean effect size of student behaviors in experimental and control groups (Durlak and Weissberg 3)

Mean effect size of SAFE Programming Mean effect size of control
Drug use .16 .03
Positive social behaviors .29 .06
Reduction in problem behaviors .30 .08
School attendance .14 .07
School bonding .25 .03
School grades .22 .05
Self-perceptions .37 .13
Academic achievement (test scores) .20 .02

Table 2 shows the value-added benefit of afterschool programs that focused on one or more personal or social skills, measuring how many more youth would benefit from participation in these programs compared to participation in other, nonfocused programs. It is calculated by dividing the difference between the improvement rates of participating and control youth by the control improvement rate ((A-B)/B). The data was collected by Joseph A. Dorlak and Roger P. Weissberg for their report, The Impact of After-School Programs That Promote

Personal and Social Skills.

Table 2

The Value-Added Benefits of Effective Afterschool Programs (Durlak and Weissberg, “The Impact of Afterschool” 18)

Outcomes % of Program Participants Improving (A) % of Controls Improving (B) Value-Added % Benefit
Feelings and Attitudes (child self perceptions, school bonding) 58.75, 56.5 41, 43.5 42.6, 29.8
Indicators of Behavioral Adjustment (positive social behaviors, problem behaviors, drug use) 57.5, 56.5, 55.5 42.5, 43.5, 44.5 35.2, 29.8, 24.7
School Performance (achievement tests, school grades) 57.75, 56 42.25, 44 36.6, 27

This data provides more evidence that participation in programs focused on social and behavioral development can lead to improvements in three key areas of a child’s education: attitude, behavior, and academic performance.


This section presents two successful afterschool programs that focus on social and behavioral skills instead of academic performance. It also demonstrates how their adherence to the CASEL framework of the SAFE method of instruction in coordination with a focus on one or more of the CASEL competency clusters has enabled their success.

Woodrock Youth Development Program

The Woodrock Youth Development Program is a highly-structured afterschool program in Kensington, Philadelphia—a long-struggling neighborhood that harbors over 40% of the drug trade in the whole city (“A Profile]”)— that has improved student social and behavioral skills by adhering to the CASEL framework.

The core of the program is a series of weekly human relations classes. Each class is conducted by a team of two youth advocates, who represent different racial, ethnic, and gender backgrounds. Classroom activities focus on raising awareness about the dangers of substance abuse, “fostering self-esteem through enhancing images of racial membership groups,” and developing an appreciation of other ethnic and cultural traditions (“A Profile”). The curriculum is sequenced and active, with periods for open discussion and role-playing exercises weaved into every lesson. The programming is also focused, in that every class very explicitly addresses a certain kind of skill that it wants its students to develop (LoScutio).

The program has improved student outcomes along several dimensions, as shown by the data in the table below, which measures how much participating students improved over non-participating students. Participants were very similar to non-participants in terms of race, socioeconomic status, and achievement.

Table 3

Woodrock Youth Development Program – Standard deviations in student outcomes for participating and non-participating youth in social and behavioral skills (“A Profile”)

Skill Effect Size (in standard deviations)
School Attendance Rates .22
Drug Use Reduction .19
Increased Racial Tolerance .22
Self-esteem .13
Reduction in Aggression .19 (not statistically significant, p = .09)

The Woodrock Youth Development Program does not explicitly align itself with the CASEL framework, but its teaching and structure strongly model it. The results from this program, which works with some of the most troubled students in the country, are promising, and hint at the potential power of rolling out a full-fledged SAFE programming with CASEL competency clusters.

Maryland After-School Community Grant Program

The Maryland After-School Community Grant Program is an afterschool program in Baltimore, Maryland, funded by the Maryland Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention with additional federal funds from the U.S. Department of Justice (Zief et al. 43). The program is run by school teachers, the principal, a guidance counselor, a police officer, and student volunteers, and lists two major goals: to lower delinquency and drug use among its students (Zief et al. 44). The program coordinators also report a minor focus on other tangential qualities, such as decreasing negative peer influence and improving social skills (Zief et al. 44).

The Maryland After-School Community Grant Program does not claim to follow the CASEL framework of programming, but nonetheless fits the model in many ways. The program provides academic and social skills instruction, which are presumably focused and explicit, along with additional recreational offerings such as board and video games, pool and ping-pong, and organized sports; these activities account for the “active” component of the SAFE method (Zief et al. 45). Our source does not mention any sequential element to the program’s instruction, which means we can neither confirm nor deny if it employs this last component of SAFE.

The positive results (with significance of p<0.5) seen when studying this program included more time spent with positive peer groups, a decrease in negative peer influences, and increased involvement in constructive activities (Zief et al. 49). However, participants also spent less time in self-care (Zief et al. 47). We speculate that this may be a result of constant instruction and activities in addition to the regular school day– students may not feel the need or feel entitled to take personal times for themselves and their overall happiness.

While the Maryland After-School Community Grant Program is not perfect, it provides an example of some positive results that can come from afterschool programs with directed focus and active engagement. There are many areas where the program could improve, such as with more explicit focus on the CASEL recommended competencies, but nonetheless, their structure has seen solid outcomes in important areas that will benefit these kids far beyond their lives as students.


Overall, we see the CASEL framework often creates positive change in students that consistently participate in afterschool programs, even if some programs do not know they are necessarily adhering by the guidelines of this particular structure. The important characteristics extracted from the data and examples show that programs with concise focus on social and behavioral abilities, coupled with active and sequential activities to engage with these skills, can enact positive change that gives kids tools to succeed not only in school, but also for the rest of their lives.

Research has shown that afterschool programs that focus on social and behavioral development yield positive benefits not only in the targeted skills, but also in academic success, which proves why more programs should begin shifting their goals to revolve around these characteristics rather than just improved academics. While success in school is important, it can often be fleeting and unsustainable, whereas characteristics such as persistence and self-control are crucial qualities that have been proven to aid classroom achievement as well (in many cases more successfully than programs that only focus on academics).

For this reason, we believe that afterschool programs should abide by the CASEL framework: structured and operated according to the SAFE model, with emphasis on at least one component of the CASEL competency clusters of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, or relationship skills. While not much research has been done on programs with this structure (mostly because not many yet exist), we maintain that if all afterschool programs can establish strong building blocks in these core areas, success in academics, social situations, and their future life endeavors will come far easier.

Addressing Challenges: Embedded Influence and Attendance

It is important to recognize that even the best-planned program aligned perfectly with the CASEL Framework can still face challenges. The most salient challenge is the issue of student retention: how do you ensure that students maintain continuous attendance? Scholar Ingrid Nelson develops a theory of embedded influence that posits that there are many overlapping and evolving contexts of students’ homes, schools, and communities that can inhibit student attendance (160). Nelson recognizes that participants’ and their social situations change over time, and thus acknowledges that afterschool programming will affect the same student in different ways depending on their situation at home and in their personal lives. For example, a middle school student that is an avid participant in middle school of afterschool programming may drop it all together once she needs to work a job in high school.

The issue of attendance is difficult to solve because of embedded influence and other systems that influence student behavior, but all programs must be conscious of this challenge as they structure their program. A possible method of addressing this challenge would be to mandate attendance, as the Woodrock Youth Development Program does. Tackling logistical challenges can also help increase consistent attendance. For example, something as simple as providing car rides or bus rides to students who struggle to get home after afterschool programming could play a huge role in increasing long-term participation.

We did not address attendance in our outlining of the CASEL framework, because data on attendance was not relayed in our sources. Had we been able to collect our own data, we would have measured attendance patterns against the successes of afterschool programs to identify any possible causal relationships. The issue of attendance is a huge gap in the research that is ripe for more exploration.


Overall, we believe that an afterschool program that is structured according to the CASEL Framework SAFE method and centers around one or more of CASEL competencies is the best design for students. We came to this conclusion after an analysis of the early research and data obtained on this relatively under-studied topic, along with some hypothesizing on our own end. We see the CASEL competencies as fundamental characteristics necessary for a child’s imminent success in school, relationships, and life, and the SAFE design of instruction gives programs a structure to follow that has seen quantified success.

Works Cited

“A Profile of the Evaluation of Woodrock Youth Development Project.” Harvard Family Research Project,  2017. Web. 01 May 2017. http://hfrp.org/out-of-school-time/ost-database-bibliography/database/woodrock-youth-development-project

David, Jane L. “Research Says…After-School Programs Can Pay Off.” Educational Leadership, vol. 68, no. 8, 2011, pp. 84-85. Web. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/may11/vol68/num08/After-School_Programs_Can_Pay_Off.aspx.

“Taking a Deeper Dive into Afterschool: Positive Outcomes and Promising Practices.” Afterschool Alliance. Feb. 2014. Web.http://www.afterschoolalliance.org/documents/Deeper_Dive_into_Afterschool.pdf.

Devaney, Elizabeth. Supporting Social and Emotional Development Through Quality Afterschool Programs. Chicago: Beyond the Bell at American Institutes for Research, 2015. Web. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED563826.pdf.

Devaney, Elizabeth, and Deborah Moroney. Linking Schools and Afterschool Through Social and Emotional Learning: Research to Action in the Afterschool and Expanded Learning

Field. Chicago: Beyond the Bell at American Institutes for Research, 2015. Web. http://www.air.org/sites/default/files/downloads/report/Linking-Schools-and-Afterschool-Through-SEL-rev.pdf.

Durlak, Joseph A., and Roger P. Weissberg. Afterschool Programs that Follow Evidence-Based Practices to Promote Social and Emotional Development Are Effective. Chicago: C.S. Mott Foundation, 2016. Web. http://www.expandinglearning.org/docs/Durlak&Weissberg_Final.pdf.

Durlak, Joseph A., and Roger P. Weissberg. The Impact of After-School Programs That Promote Personal and Social Skills. Chicago: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2007. Web. http://www.casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/the-impact-of-after-school-programs-that-promote-personal-and-social-skills.pdf.

LoSciuto, Leonardo, Susan M. Hilbert, M. Margaretta Fox, Lorraine Porcellini, Alden Lanphear. “A Two-Year Evaluation of the Woodrock Youth Development Project.” Journal of Early Adolescence, vol. 19, no. 4, 1999, pp. 488-507. Web. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0272431699019004004.

Nelson, Ingrid A. Why Afterschool Matters. Rutgers University Press, 2016. Print.

Protheroe, Nancy. “Successful After-school Programs.” National Association of Elementary School Principals, May 2006. Web. https://www.naesp.org/resources/2/Principal/2006/M-Jp34.pdf

Vandell, Deborah Lowe, and Elisabeth R. Reisner, Kim M. Pierce. Outcomes Linked to High-Quality Afterschool Programs: Longitudinal Findings for the Study of Promising Afterschool Programs. Irvine: University of California, Irvine, 2007. Web. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED499113.pdf.

Zief, Susan Goerlich, and Sherri Lauver, Rebecca A. Maynard. Impact of After-School Programs on Student Outcomes. Oslo: Campbell Systematic Reviews, 2006. Web. https://www.campbellcollaboration.org/media/k2/attachments/1011_R.pdf.

Gulen Schools: One of America’s Largest and Most Controversial CMOs

Edgar Aviña, Shoshana Davidoff-Gore, Caitlin Dermody, Daniel Vernick


For years, politicians, educators, and parents alike have engaged in the great charter school debate. Functioning in the space between privatization and public funding, charter management organizations (CMOs) can be filled with mystery beyond the specifics of their structure. Recently, the American media has latched onto this fact, often using the stories of either a star student or a fraudulent CMO on their front page. However, only one CMO in the United States is connected to a self-exiled Turkish cleric, a coup d’etat, and a U.S. investigation—the Gulen charter schools network.

In this report, we formulate a brief account of Gulen Schools in America. Through the study of five specific Gulen schools and an overview of data collected on the Gulen movement, we study the organization of these schools, their educational practices, and their value for American students. We find that students in Gulen schools are outperforming their peers in public school districts, and, in spite of a less-than-transparent connection with Turkey and Fethullah Gulen, Gulen schools provide a completely secular education based on the advancement of STEM skills.


There is no one source which comprehensively documents the demographic statistics, discipline trends, and tests scores of the Gulen Schools network as a whole. Therefore, it was necessary to randomly select Gulen schools to examine more carefully. To generate this list of five schools, we copied and pasted a comprehensive list of all Gulen linked schools (sourced from a blog called Charter School Scandals, curated by education blogger Sharon Higgins) into an Excel sheet which automatically assigns a number to each school (the first school is in row 1, and so on). We then used a random number generator to get five numbers, which we then cross-referenced with the Excel sheet to determine a list of five schools. To obtain the qualitative information for this report, we used online articles about the Gulen Schools Network as well as information from each school’s’ individual website. The quantitative data presented in this report was acquired from the databases of the federal Office of Civil Rights and US News and World Report.

History, Pedagogy, Mission of Gulen Schools

Gulen charter schools stem from a larger religious and political movement known as the Gulen Movement. The movement was started by Imam Fethullah Gulen, born and raised in Turkey, who has been an active religious leader since the 1960s and 70s. Gulen preaches from the Sunni tradition of Islam and encourages cooperation and tolerance, as well as the importance of a comprehensive secular education outside of religious teachings. Although the schools receive no direct oversight from Gulen himself, they were founded as an extension of hizmet, meaning “the service”, which is an alternate name for the movement as well as its primary principle. Providing an excellent education is seen as a fulfillment of service to others, and the schools emphasize math and science, with no religious indoctrination.   

According to a website created and endorsed by the Gulen Movement, the first Gulen schools were established in Turkey to help students prepare for University in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the early 90s, as the Soviet Union dissolved, businessmen and educators traveled to other nations in Central Asia to establish more schools. Today, there are Gulen schools and cultural centers on six continents that serve over 2 million students.

In the United States, there are currently 167 charter schools that are likely linked with the Gulen Movement in 26 states and Washington D.C, making it one of the largest charter school organizations in the country. (Due to the lack of explicit connections between the Gulen Movement and many of its charter schools, it is difficult to give a definitive number. Other sources claim that there are between 120 and 135 US Gulen Charters). In 2012, the schools enrolled more than 45,000 students, but the number has likely increased in the years since.

In practice, the Gulen movement seems to manifest most explicitly as an ideology- principles of public service and secular knowledge  that inspire and guide supporters of Fethullah Gulen as they set up smaller CMOs in individual cities. In Texas, for example, the Gulen associated CMO is called Harmony Public Schools, which operates over fifty charter schools across the state. The CMO was founded by Turkish-American graduate student Dr. Soner Tarim, and the network does hire international (read Turkish) teachers, the CMO explicitly denies any religious affiliation. However, the Gulen associated schools in other parts of the country are run by separate CMOs, like Magnolia Public Schools in California, which have a completely different organizational system.  

While there is an immense number of schools associated with the Gulen movement, most do not advertise an explicit connection, either on public internet sources or when asked directly. Looking at websites for many of these US charters, it would be impossible to detect the connection without prior knowledge. This is likely in-part to prevent increased Islamophobia that could be catalyzed by an explicit connection with Gulen and Turkey. Another possibility is that the schools are truly not connected with Fethullah Gulen himself, and thus do not have any reason to advertise themselves as such. Given this lack of transparency, it is also difficult to pinpoint pedagogy that is consistent between Gulen schools and each CMO. There is a clear focus on math and science in many of the schools, with an emphasis on technology and innovation, but each regional CMO has its own mission and vision.


As previously mentioned, no Gulen school markets itself as an associate of the Gulen movement. The schools are run out of a variety of charter management organizations, including Magnolia in California, Harmony in Texas, Horizon Science Academy in Illinois , and Sonora in Arizona to name a few. Each charter network advertises their schools slightly differently on their website. Magnolia has an added focus on the “arts”, Harmony is committed to creating “safe environments”, and Sonoran schools emphasize “excellence.”  However, all of the schools market themselves through one common mission: to support STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math educations for today’s students. According to the charter’s websites, it is the study of these subjects that increases students success in “college, the workplace, and the 21st century.” Each website cites a desire to produce “global effects” or “world leaders” as a secondary goal of their schools’ missions. Despite no mention of “Gulen” on any of the webpages, the mission of these schools draws direct parallels to the teachings of Fettaluah Gulen, himself. Fettaluah Gulen  has preached that “Studying physics, mathematics, and chemistry is worshipping God.” He also often emphasizes the path of a universal community around the globe.


Although many teachers in Gulen schools are Turkish, Gulen Schools serve a wide variety of student populations.  As shown by the graph to the right, they tend to either overpass or match the enrollment of students of color of their districts. Only the Harmony School of Advancement sports a lower rate of diversity than its district. Latinos are the largest ethnic group in the charter schools, but they are not present in any school at a rate higher than 70 percent (also note that five of the six are located in majority-Latino cities: Los Angeles, Houston, and San Antonio).

A comparison of the free and reduced lunch data of Gulen schools and their surrounding districts makes it clear that Gulen Schools are not serving the highest-poverty students in their areas, but that they are serving moderately needy students. In other words, Gulen schools are serving needy students, but not the most needy in their areas. This distinction is important, and it emerges from the fact that Gulen schools enroll much fewer free lunch students (The School of Science and Technology in San Antonio enrolls a whopping 50% less free lunch students) but also tend to serve more reduced lunch students than their surrounding districts, as shown in the graphs above. These differences illustrate how Gulen can rightfully claim that it is serving “low-income students” — reduced lunch students are still classified as such — while also, in effect, not serving the most high-need students (free lunch students).

School Districts

As mentioned above, the Gulen schools generally represents the demographics of their school district. When considering how the Gulen Schools affects the school district, one must understand that one of the largest complaints against CMOs is their use of funds taken from public schools. As one of the largest CMO networks in the country, this argument is often heightened. However, despite these usual claims, The largest impact on the surrounding district has often come through news stories about the schools questionable practices. For example, one teacher, Mary Addidi, was fired from her school in Cleveland, Ohio just to be replaced by a Turkish teacher. In 2014, the FBI examined 19 Gulen schools for “undisclosed reasons.” This did not come as a surprise too many. The schools are a direct way for the Gulen movement to (1) make money, (2) influence students, (3) connect with politicians, and (4) certify Turkish citizens immigration to America. For example, 152 state legislatures toured Turkey through funding from Gulen organizations from 2006 to 2015. Some claim that the profit of the Gulen schools, run through public funding, may have funded these trips.These schools are often considered to serve as profit creators and support suppliers for the Gulen movement. However, when perusing the Internet for examples of these fraudulent aspects, the success stories of Gulen students. There are two narratives that appear for Gulen schools: (1) an exploitation of academics for a illegal purpose and (2) highly performing schools where all students excel.

School Achievement

The cross-section of Gulen Schools that we have examined have consistently outperformed their home states, and drawn even with or outperformed their surrounding districts (No achievement data was found on three of the schools). As shown in the graphs on the previous page, Horizon Science Academy in Cleveland and the School of Science and Technology in San Antonio report test scores that are roughly equal with those of their surrounding district in math and reading. The two Harmony Schools in Houston and the Magnolia Academy in Los Angeles have outshone their respective districts in both math and reading. It is noteworthy that none of the schools are falling behind their respective district.

The Gulen schools consistently outperformed their surrounding states. What is particularly impressive is the performance of the School of Science and Technology in San Antonio, where the percent difference in student proficiency rates in math between the school and the state of Texas was a whopping 29%. What’s noteworthy about this set of graphs is that it shows that some Gulen schools have particular areas of strength. For example, the School of Science and Technology excelled in math, which makes sense in light of its name and mission. The Harmony School of Advancement, which has less of STEM  focus than other schools in the network, did phenomenally in reading, but comparatively less well in math. Overall, the performance of the Gulen schools is satisfactory, although it is clear that some have more room for growth.


Within Gulen Schools, Discipline often varies. There is variability in the rates of in-school suspension.  Three of the six Gulen charter schools we studied had substantially higher suspension rates than the surrounding districts.  One, Harmony Science Academy in Houston, sported a lower suspension rate than the surrounding Houston school district. Two Gulen charter schools in Los Angeles suspended not a single student; this low rate of suspensions may be rooted in a larger trend in Los Angeles which has seen a sharp drop in suspensions.

While the lack of suspensions in the Magnolia schools may very well be rooted in the wider downward trend of suspensions in Los Angeles, the root causes of the variability in the other schools is harder to discern. Harmony School of Advancement boasts of “Discipline with Character” that “reaffirms our strength as a drug free, gang-free, peer pressure-free, bully-free, truancy-free, fight-free and crime-free campus.” The Horizon Science Academy merely notes that it wants to “maintain an enriching, safe environment.” School of Science and Technology only notes that it wants to maintain a “dynamic” learning environment.


The FBI is currently investigating whether Gulen and his followers have taken funding from the charter schools “to fund his movement in Turkey.” One senior State Department official said Gulen schools and charities in America “look a lot like the ways in which organized crime sets itself up…to hide money for money laundering.” Former Gulen teachers say that there is a “scheme by Gulen’s followers to take advantage of the American charter school system and fund Gulen’s movement.” For instance, former Gulen follower and Gulen school math teacher Ersin Konkur said that the school administration made Turkish teachers give a portion of their salary back to the school. Konkur said, “they were asking for cash [from the teachers].” Konkur paid around 20,000 throughout his time as a teacher.

Mustafa Emanet, who works at a Gulen-linked school in Ohio, said that he had to give 40% of his salary back to the administration. The FBI thinks that administration at Emanet’s school “illegally paid themselves 5 million in federal contracts and then sent those US tax dollars to Bank Asya, a bank in Turkey linked to Gulen’s followers.” Alp Aslandogan, Gulen’s closest advisor, said that those allegations are completely false and that if teachers were forced to pay a portion of their salary, “Gulen would be the first to condemn it,” saying the investigation is politically motivated.

The Turkish government hired lawyers to encourage the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to investigate Harmony Public Schools, which is the largest Texas charter school network and a Gulen-linked CMO, serving 31,000 students in 46 schools across Texas. The Turkish government alleges that “Harmony hires under-qualified Turkish teachers” and directs “business toward companies run by Turkish nationals.” Harmony schools CEO Soner Tarim called the lawsuit “ridiculous and baseless,” and said that it’s a political attack by President Erdogan. TEA is currently assessing the complaint.

Funding for Gulen-linked charter districts varies depending on the CMO, but largely comes from a few central sources. Austin’s 2016-17 Harmony schools budget, for instance, received 32.9 million from the Foundation School Program, which is Texas’s main source of state education funding. Another 2 million came in federal funding distributed by the TEA, and smaller amounts include $719,000 from the National School Lunch Program and $125,000 from the National School Breakfast Program. Only $292,696 came from local tax revenue. Other schools had similar funding sources and revenue proportions.


Gulen-linked charter districts offer similar descriptions of their teaching opportunities and work environment. Harmony Public Schools, for instance, encourages teachers to apply for a job for “personal growth and professional success,” and encourages “recent graduates or experienced professionals seeking new career opportunities” to apply. There is a clear emphasis on teachers new to the profession. This implies that Harmony seeks to mold teachers to their unique model, which emphasizes a math and science-based curriculum and a “culture of competition, discipline, and parental engagement.” Harmony’s emphasizes “opportunities for advancement [and] career growth” but fails to mention virtually anything about students. Salaries range from 20,000 for a teacher aide to 47,780 for a high school teacher to 74,001 for a software developer. The starting salary varies depending on the cost of living in the location of the school. Similarly, the Gulen-linked charter CMO called Magnolia Public Schools highlights the ability for teachers to “reach their full potential” and to “build and advance [their] career,” emphasizing personal careers but leaving out any discussion of the ability to make a difference in students’ lives.

A variety of staffing issues have arisen with various Gulen CMOs. Complaints from teacher unions in Illinois and Ohio accusing Gulen-linked CMOs of violating the visa program by favoring Turkish over American teachers have spurred a Department of Labor investigation. Three Los Angeles Magnolia charters are at risk of being shut down because they bring in teachers from Turkey, using temporary work visas. In 2016, the LA School Board noted that it was concerned that Magnolia schools applied for visas for 138 teachers, funding all their travel costs including $3000 per person visa costs for the teacher and their family members. Spending $929,000 of taxpayer dollars to import large numbers of teachers from Turkey, paired with the “failure to disclose the hiring strategy,” has aroused suspicion. Furthermore, the work visas the Turkish teachers had are only supposed to be used “when no qualified American job seekers can be found.” The hiring patterns at Magnolia schools were replicated in most of the 136 Gulen-linked schools across the country.
Another complaint is that Magnolia didn’t “turn over all requested documentation.” The chair of LA School Board says that Magnolia never said told the school board that it would bring teachers from Turkey. Now that the school is up for reauthorization, school board head Steve Zimmerer says that Magnolia didn’t necessarily “follow the instructional and business practices outlined in its petition.” The Magnolia CEO said that those involved in the scandal should be brought to justice, but that the Magnolia schools shouldn’t close because doing so would punish students who did nothing wrong.


Harmony schools are effective at teaching students, but their transparency and accountability to taxpayers and the American people must be improved. Many are highly-ranked in national ratings, and the waiting list is equivalent to the entire student body at all the Harmony schools. However, many controversies have recently arisen. A 2014 lawsuit accused Harmony Public Schools of paying male Turkish teachers more than female and non-Turkish teachers, even than those with more experience. In 2014, Harmony schools reached a settlement with the Education Department regarding teaching of ELL students and students with disabilities. An investigation found that there are far fewer of those students at Harmony schools than at public schools, and Harmony schools didn’t provide them with the appropriate support.

At Harmony and other Gulen schools, contracts and purchases from school lunches to teacher training are awarded to Turkish businesses. The vast majority of construction on Harmony schools has been done by Turkish companies, even though local American companies have bid hundreds of thousands of dollars lower in some cases. For instance, TDM Contracting was awarded an 8.2 million contract to build a new Harmony charter in San Antonio, despite the fact that the company was only 1 month old. Gulen schools have also used taxpayer dollars to benefit “local foundations that that promote Gulen teaching and Turkish culture.”

Greater monitoring and accountability for Gulen-linked schools is clearly imperative. In addition to investigations by the FBI, Department of Education, and Department of Labor, numerous scandals abound. A Pennsylvania Gulen-linked school, called Truebright, had a discrimination lawsuit filed against it in 2013. A former English teacher at Truebright began the civil rights lawsuit, which claimed that the school “discriminated against employees based on gender and national origin.” Nine Truebright teachers also “filed initial discrimination complaints” with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The charter ended up not being reauthorized. In another case, Lancaster, PA rejected an application for a Gulen-linked charter due to application mistakes such as “carelessness and numerous cut and paste segments from other charter school applications which had no relevance to the application,” as well as a “total lack of knowledge” in curriculum planning. A 2008 investigation of an Ohio Gulen-linked school was begun by the Department of Labor about H1-B visas for teachers. The budget included money paid to people in Turkey, including people that had never worked for the school. 13,000 in “illegal immigration fees” were listed, and the school building is leased from a landlord that lives in Turkey.

Pioneer Charter School of Science in MA was praised as a model charter, but had a very high attrition rate, especially among people with disabilities. The school hired Turkish teachers while at the same time there was intense competition for teaching spots at other MA charters. 56.7% of teachers at Pioneer Charter were licensed in what they were teaching, but in public schools of the same town 99.5% of teachers were licensed. Gulen-linked schools are often high-performing in terms of student achievement. But in order to maintain credibility and long-term sustainability, the schools must ensure that their administrative decisions are accountable to taxpayers and to the government.


The high test score results of the Gulen schools suggest that this network is doing a competent job of education children. However, it must be remembered that the goal of education is far greater than for students to do well on tests. Students must learn in an environment that implicitly fosters growth of their whole being. Standardized test results often have limited bearing on the quality of education that a student is receiving. However, the environment and greater mission of a school implicitly affects students in everything that they do.

Gulen schools have become embroiled in scandal and controversy. While schools disassociate themselves from Gulen himself, many administration officials in his charter schools are connected to him and his religious-political cult. Numerous Gulen schools across the country are under investigation by the FBI, the Department of Education, and/or the Department of Labor. The allegations are wide-ranging, from paying female and non-Turkish teachers less than male Turks to favoring Turkish companies for construction of school buildings despite lower bids from American businesses, and forcing teachers brought over from Turkey to give a certain portion of their salary to Gulen political leaders in Turkey. Thus, despite high test scores, the Gulen schools appear to be implicated in a greater scandal that would most likely affect the students’ abilities to receive an education solely focusing on the student’s growth academically, intellectually, and socially.

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