State education leaders investigated reports last year of a “prayer room” at Kenilworth Science and Technology Charter School, two officials said Tuesday.
Shirl E. Gilbert II, a former deputy superintendent at the state Department of Education, said after hearing complaints from parents he and an assistant visited the school.
Gilbert said he found a prayer rug “with fringes on each end,” apparently used by some Kenilworth teachers of Turkish heritage.
He said he had concerns that only teachers with Turkish ties were given time to pray, and not black or white educators.
But Gilbert said that, other than a meeting with then-state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek and school officials, nothing came of the episode amid complaints from Kenilworth leaders that he was “heavy-handed” in his approach.
School officials have denied any wrongdoing.
Kenilworth is under investigation by the state Department of Education, mostly because it is run by the same firm — Pelican Educational Foundation — that oversees Abramson Science and Technology Charter School in New Orleans, which is embroiled in controversy.
The state has suspended operations at Abramson amid allegations of sexual abuse and other problems.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is set to meet at 10 a.m. Wednesday, primarily to discuss whether to revoke Pelican’s charter for Abramson.
In addition, acting Superintendent of Education Ollie Tyler told BESE members on Tuesday in a memo that the department believes major changes are needed in the state oversight of charter schools.
The department is proposing an independent review by national experts on state regulatory practices, changes in the state office that oversees the schools and more rigorous performance checks.
Louisiana has about 90 charter schools, which are public schools run by independent boards and are supposed to offer innovative education methods.
Roughly 35,000 students attend the schools, about 5 percent of public school enrollment statewide.
Linda Johnson, a member of BESE from Plaquemine, said Tuesday she asked Pastorek to check reports of two possible problems at Kenilworth after hearing complaints.
“One was that they had some kind of prayer room that they used to pray,” Johnson said.
“The other was that they discriminated against women,” she said.
“Neither one of those things was proven to be true, but I had gotten those complaints,” Johnson said.
However, a lawsuit filed in May 2010 contends the school wrongfully fired dean of students Carla Wells, discipline monitor Kesha Burton and teacher Shundra Hatch on the basis of their race, gender, national origin and religion.
The lawsuit is pending in federal court here.
Gilbert said that, at the time he was checking the school, the principal was Cuneyt Dokmen.
Hasan Suzuk, who is now the principal at Kenilworth, told families and faculty last week in a message on the school’s website that the school hires without considering race, gender, sex or religion.
Suzuk said that, during the 2010-11 school year, 15 black women were on the staff.
He also wrote, “We have never received legitimate complaints about religious teachings at school because none exists.”
Kenilworth has about 450 students in grades 6, 7 and 8.
On Monday, Pelican filed a lawsuit in the 19th Judicial District aimed in part at blocking any action Wednesday by BESE on Abramson’s status.
However, that bid failed and a hearing was set for Aug. 11, said Penny Dastugue, who is BESE president and one of those named in the lawsuit.
Gilbert is now executive director for school turnaround and charter schools with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.