These Two Detroit Students Spoke Up and Now Their Diplomas Are Withheld

August 17, 2019, 5:33 AM by  Violet Ikonomova

Zainab Altalaqani, 18, left, and Tuhfa Kasem, 17

Tuhfa Kasem and Zainab Altalaqani made news in June when they used their high school graduation stage to sharply criticize the Detroit charter school they were leaving behind. 

Instead of giving traditional farewells, the two salutatorians from Universal Academy’s Class of 2019 proclaimed the school — run by a for-profit management company — was putting profits over students, relying primarily on long-term substitutes who lack teaching certificates and a weak curriculum designed to let students easily pass. 

And they said students and staff who took issue faced retaliation.

In the wake of the speeches, Universal Academy’s management company, Hamadeh Educational Services, has ultimately lived up to that latter critique. Instead of responding with regret or even silence, it has lawyered up and withheld the teens’ diplomas. And this action came after it failed to give graduates their transcripts on time — reportedly hampering the college admissions process for some.

Though Kasem and Altalaqani never have to step foot in Universal Academy again, they’re now leading a fight for changes at the school to “create a better future” for the students there.

On Monday, Kasem and other recent graduates demanded the school’s authorizer, Oakland University, enact reforms they say would, among other things, stop the school from functioning like a “dictatorship.”

“I shouldn’t have to be afraid of speaking up like my peers who had their transcripts held and my teachers who were fired in the middle of the school year,” Wally Alhomaidi, a junior, told the university’s board of trustees. “The community is afraid of speaking up and [doesn’t] want to be punished for using their First Amendment rights.”

Hamadeh Educational Services is no stranger to controversy: In 2016, it came under fire for abruptly firing a group of Universal Academy teachers who’d raised concerns about teaching conditions at the school. A subsequent wrongful termination suit filed by the teachers was settled for $106,000.

The management company has denied the issues raised by the students, pointing to more than $18 million in college scholarships it says were awarded to graduating seniors and several rankings it says show the school is one of the top-performing charters in the state. In a statement to Deadline Detroit, Mario Morrow, a spokesman for HES, said its staff has “an open-door policy, pride themselves in the services that they provide to help their students, and (their accomplishments).”

Changes the students seek include First Amendment protections and community representation on the school’s board. Oakland University would have to write those changes into its authorizing agreement with Universal Academy, the students say.

Representation on the school board is key, Kasem says, because it would give the school’s predominantly Yemeni-American population a better shot at having their needs met.

Nawal Hamadeh (Photo: Facebook - Hamadeh Educational Services)

None of Universal Academy’s board members live near the west-side school or have children who attend, students and parents say. The board meets miles away in Dearborn Heights.

“There’s this social hierarchy within the Arab community in which Lebanese people seem to be on top,” Kasem explained, noting that HES’ CEO, Nawal Hamadeh, is Lebanese. “They would never send their kids into these underprivileged schools but have no problem running them as long as they’re profiting.”

Charters can be set up by any individual, group or entity that obtains authorization from a university or other educational body. The authorizer or school developer then appoints a board, which in turn taps a management company to run the school — in this case HES.

Though state law requires authorizers to ensure charter school boards operate independently, education watchdogs say the boards often wind up serving as fronts for the management companies themselves.

HES CEO Hamadeh is also the founder of Universal Academy, according to the school’s website. Both Oakland University and Morrow would not say whether she also appointed its board. 

Universal Academy board president Leila Chammout also sidestepped questions when reached by phone. She said she would call back, but never did.

Jason Hackney, a Michigan charter school watchdog with the Democratic Socialists of America’s Greater Detroit chapter, says having the same person behind the management company and board reduces the likelihood students’ interest will be best served.

“It opens them to getting board members that have a financial interest over the interest of public education,” said Hackney. “Board members could potentially have conflicts of interests without rigorous authorizer investigations."

When asked whether any board members have ties to the school or Detroit community in which it sits, Morrow responded that “the board members ... are all U.S. citizens.” He said he represents the board as well as the management company.

Oakland University said it would respond to the students’ demands by next week. In a statement, it said it is “working as a mediator … to clarify and seek resolutions to issues raised. This is consistent with the OU practice of being ready to assist our charter schools.”

Kasem says she’s confident OU will take action given the amount of negative attention Universal Academy has received in recent months. But she acknowledges that Michigan’s loose charter regulations do not require it to do much: There’s ultimately financial incentive for OU to re-authorize HES (authorizers in Michigan can collect 3 percent of per-pupil funding) and authorizers that let bad schools stay in business are rarely penalized. 

OU — for its part — has a “C” grade from the Education Trust, a nonpartisan advocacy organization that ranks authorizers based on student performance.

Hamadeh has reportedly hired a lawyer to investigate Kasem and Altalaqani’s speeches. She told Chalkbeat she believes the teens were influenced by disgruntled adults — a claim they deny. 

Morrow says Hamadeh will relinquish the students’ diplomas once they meet criteria outlined in a letter sent last month. That letter, Kasem says, asks for a meeting. Hamadeh wrote that the teens have “every right to bring an attorney.”

Withholding the diplomas is largely symbolic — Kasem and Altalaqani are set to start at Wayne State University this fall.

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