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Charter Chain Harmony Public Schools Celebrates 10 Big Ones at the Winspear

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Harmony Public Schools, Texas' largest chain of charter schools, packed all but the uppermost tier of the Winspear last night for a celebration of its 10th anniversary. The 33-school chain is built on a math, science and engineering curriculum -- a popular talking point among a series of lawmakers who, in taped remarks or through staff members sent in their place, said Harmony's helping to address the shortage of engineers graduating from U.S. schools.

Texas Sen. Royce West and U.S. Rep Kay Granger offered their support for the chain in recorded videos, and Laura Leppert, wife of U.S. Senate candidate Tom, turned up in person to accept an award for her husband's support of public education.

"Education changed my husband's life, and enabled him to live the American dream," Leppert said, adding that her husband tried to pay it forward too, by donating his mayor's salary to help kids graduate.

Surrounded by light-up columns and red, white and blue draperies, Harmony superintendent and co-founder Soner Tarim recalled the school's first days for parents. "On paper, there was no reason to trust us. And yet, our parents did," he said. "We will continue to grow, one classroom at a time."

Sure enough, Tarim told Unfair Park over the phone this morning, they've got plans to add to the two schools they've already got in Dallas next year with a new high school focused on business and marketing.

Tarim says they're planning to open two or three new schools each year in major Texas markets, with a focus on serving their K-8 students as they enter high school. Their goal, Tarim says, is to grow while maintaining a couple of impressive stats they touted heavily at last night's ceremony: a zero percent dropout rate, and a 100 percent college acceptance rate.

That last number applies to around 300 high school seniors in the chain this year, but will grow, Tarim says, to about 600 next year and more than 1,000 by 2016. Tarim says in the midst of shrinking teaching staffs, Harmony's one of the few public education outfits that's hiring now. "We know how to run our schools based on a limited budget," Tarim says, "and we are used to budget cuts. It's the nature of charter schools, we have to be inventive."

Harmony, the subject of a fair-sized Texas Monthly feature last fall, operates on a business plan built with help from the Gates Foundation, and has enlisted P.R. firm Burson-Marsteller -- whose global vice chairwoman is Karen Hughes, a familiar face from the Bush Adminstration -- to help with publicity and to lobby the Texas Legislature. (Update at 6:39: Harmony's publicist at Burson-Marsteller, Megan Whitley, just called to clarify: Hughes "is not a registered lobbyist and she does not lobby," she says.)

While some of the chain's critics seem more concerned about transparency and accountability, others have latched onto conspiracy theories about its founders' Turkish and Muslim backgrounds, and supposed tied to scholar Fetullah Gulen.

A Q&A page distributed by Harmony says, though, "there are no ties of any kind to the Gulen Movement or Fetullah Gulen," and the 21,000-strong wait list for Harmony schools suggests most parents aren't too convinced by the race- and religion-based attacks.

Even with huge budget cuts coming for public education, Tarim says Harmony's still going to be hiring around Dallas in the next few years -- especially, of course, if DISD trustees decide to throw their support behind expanding charters' presence in the district.

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