Head of The Class

With test scores down and the dropout rate up, everyone’s looking to fix Texas’ schools. Has a Turkish Muslim who has been influenced by the teachings of an obscure philosopher found an answer? Just ask the hundreds of at-risk students who have graduated from his charter schools.
Head of The Class
Photograph by Adam Voorhes

The beige building on South Braeswood Boulevard looks run-down for the Meyerland section of Houston, which helps explain why the Hebrew academy formerly housed there left for better quarters. The interior offers little to improve that first impression. Painted in shades of light yellow and green, the narrow hallways, though lined with pennants from dozens of colleges, do not inspire. The library/computer lab is a dark, low-ceilinged room partly lit by a string of white Christmas lights. The lunchroom area is more like a wide hallway, with banks of blue lockers along the walls. To make the space seem gracious, several large pictures of the sort one sees in a grandmother’s house hang high above the lockers: landscapes, sailing ships, skylines at eventide. The gym is new, but the basketball court is not regulation size, and the sidelines come within a couple of feet of the walls. It is about what one would expect in a school where 70 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged and 80 percent are either Hispanic or black. At one point in the tour, the principal, Dr. Edib Ercetin, smiled and said with a shrug, “It’s like an old woman. No matter how much makeup she puts on, you can tell.”

It was a matter-of-fact acknowledgement, not an apology. The truth is that Ercetin’s school, the Harmony Science Academy, is one of the best in the country. It received an “exemplary” rating from the Texas Education Agency for the 2008—2009 school year, reflecting its outstanding test scores and its zero dropout rate, placing it in the top 8 percent of all public high schools in the state. This year the HSA received the Silver Medal in U.S. News and World Report’s America’s Best High Schools, putting it in the top 3 percent in the entire nation.

The name may not be familiar to most readers, but the Harmony Science Academy is part of a growing movement in Texas that may revolutionize our educational system. It is a charter school, which is a public school funded by taxpayer money but run by a nonprofit organization or a for-profit business (Harmony is the former). In Texas, the State Board of Education grants the charter, and the TEA monitors the

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