Charter school students approach Board of Trustees to resolve conflict with administration

Trevor Tyle, Editor-in-Chief

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Students at one of Oakland University’s Public School Academies are fighting back after publicizing a conflict with their school administrators — and nearly jeopardizing their college education in the process.

Universal Academy (UA) in southwest Detroit has come under fire in recent months after two of its graduating seniors spoke out against school administration at their commencement in June and, consequently, had their diplomas withheld. Tuhfa Kasem and Zainab Altalaqani, salutatorians for the class of 2019, alleged that school administrators had cultivated an environment of inadequate educational opportunities, including a surplus of unqualified long-term substitute teachers and retaliation against members of the community who spoke out against the school.

In addition to their diplomas being withheld, UA and its management company, Hamadeh Educational Services (HES), reportedly held graduating students’ transcripts as well, prolonging their college application processes.

As a charter school, UA is authorized by OU, meaning that the university “ensures that the school is being operated well by the school’s board of directors,” according to the PSA website. Last month, several UA students addressed OU’s Board of Trustees (BOT) to express their concerns and attempt to elicit change within their community.

“This year, our youth organizing team surveyed students at the school, and the two biggest issues they found the students face are a lack of students’ voices and not having enough certified teachers,” said Sarah Nasher, a recent UA graduate. 

In 2016, eight UA teachers were fired in the middle of the school year after speaking out about the school’s lack of resources at a Board of Education meeting. UA students have since asked OU’s BOT to consider drafting a policy that would protect teachers, parents and staff from administrative retaliation when exercising their First Amendment rights.

Now, 30 out of the school’s 33 teachers are long-term substitutes. Nasher claimed many of these substitutes assign “busy work” so that, statistically, the school continues to rank among the most successful academic institutions.

“These students have given up on themselves — HES is making students give up on themselves,” Nasher said. “However, we don’t want to give up on them.”

According to Hanine Mansour-Fakih, assistant principal at UA and district curriculum coordinator for HES, this issue can be attributed to a national teacher shortage, not administrative shortcomings. She also said all UA educators satisfy the Michigan Department of Education’s teaching requirements. 

Mansour-Fakih also alleged that the students’ complaints were rooted in their dissatisfaction with their grade point averages at the end of the school year, which prompted them to use social media to give the school negative press. Furthermore, she claimed the students’ activism proved the school was successful in preparing them for life outside the classroom.

“I really believe in what we do, which is our commitment to our students,” she said. “What you have seen today is actually real proof that they are career-ready.”

During the August BOT meeting, several disgruntled UA students and alumni presented the BOT with a list of requests to improve the school as it currently stands, including investigations into administrative conflicts of interests, inadequate curriculum and the aforementioned lack of qualified teachers. 

The students also expressed hopes for increased involvement and representation in school-related issues, including the assurance that parents, students and community members would have a role in UA’s budgeting process and a place on the school board.

“Many of our community members are Yemeni, yet no Yemeni person sits on our board,” Kasem said. “Often, our collective voices are silenced, or we are retaliated against by those in power. We understand there may be limitations on how many seats are available and potential age restrictions for young people, but we wanted to ensure those most affected by our board decisions have a seat on the board.”

The students thanked the BOT for making them feel heard after they previously assisted in the reacquisition of their transcripts earlier this year.

“As young people, it means a lot when adults stand with us to make our dreams a reality,” UA junior Wally Alhomaidi said. “We don’t want the school to be shut down. We want it to be a place where the dreams of our parents and our dreams are able to come true.”

OU issued a statement after the BOT meeting expressing plans to have a report ready by Friday, Aug. 23, though the details of that report have yet to be publicized.