Making (Up) the Grade

This HISD program teaches a big lesson: Don't question what the district touts

Two educational gurus visited Houston last spring to evaluate HISD's privately contracted alternative schools, operated by Community Education Partners. Educational historian Diane Ravitch and Mary Butz, the founder of the Manhattan Village Academy, wrote a report filled with effusive adjectives, describing the "tranquil" hallways and the school's overall "sense of serenity."

HISD Superintendent Rod Paige traveled to New York in January to present Ravitch's report at the Manhattan Institute, a policy think tank. Paige bragged that in less than one academic year the school raises the average student 2.4 grade levels in reading and 2.1 in math.

When Tom Kellow read about the presentation on HISD's Web site, he was outraged. The specialist in HISD's Department of Research and Accountability had done his own study and found that after a year at CEP, students' test scores went down one grade level.

Paige disputes the findings by the district's own evaluator and defends CEP.
Paige disputes the findings by the district's own evaluator and defends CEP.

On January 26 Kellow e-mailed about 1,800 statisticians on the American Evaluation Association Discussion List asking if there was an "evaluators crisis hot line."

"I've no idea where he got this data, unless the negative gain signs in my report were altered to be '+,' " Kellow wrote. "I am furious."

His colleagues wrote back that he should hire a lawyer and start looking for a new job.

The CEP program was born in 1995 when legislators rewrote the Texas Education Code to require Harris County and other large counties to provide classes for students who had been expelled for committing a school-related felony. "The concept was no child in the state should be expelled into the streets," says John M. Danielson, CEP vice president.

Harris County selected the bid from Nashville-based CEP, a company freshly created by some politically connected Tennesseans with limited education credentials. Two were former state Republican Party chairmen in Tennessee. Danielson himself worked in various GOP causes and was an underling to presidential hopeful Lamar Alexander when the former Tennessee governor was U.S. education secretary. Two of the top CEP officials were an executive in a private prison chain and a company officer for Hospital Corporation of America.

CEP set up its first school in the Heights. Paige says he toured it and liked what he saw. At that time HISD alternative schools cost $12,000 per student each year. CEP was about $3,000 cheaper. Plus, Paige wasn't satisfied with the alternative school's academic gains; CEP said it could be more successful. The HISD contract was the most lucrative for the company -- with the full 2,500-student quota, the company would take in about $22.4 million.

Overall, CEP has a Houston enrollment of 2,233 students, which includes kids from Pasadena schools and the county's Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program. They are the ones who act up in class, can't seem to learn and disrupt others from learning.

"This is a safety net," says CEP's Danielson. "This exists to save them."

In 1997 the Beechnut school opened in an abandoned Sharpstown Wal-Mart. A year later the Ferndale campus was opened in the old Foley's furniture warehouse. There's a CEP school in Dallas and one opening in Philadelphia.

The schools in the rest of the district are safer and calmer with the troublemakers at CEP, says Terry Abbott, HISD spokesperson. And teachers are happier because the company has taken disruptive kids out of the classroom, says Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers.

The Ferndale school reflects the differences from regular instructional regimens. Kids wear khaki pants and school-issued jerseys and walk through metal detectors. Jewelry is forbidden. They stay in the same classroom with the same teacher all day, at computer stations lining the walls. Several other aspects of the operation are unique, including the reliance on computer programs and videos.

The Ravitch report raves that these kids are "engaged" staring at computer screens, yet the report is contradictory. Its top recommendation is to have less computer-based learning, which can alienate and isolate already alienated kids. It notes that teachers don't actually do much teaching, but often serve primarily as monitors.

But the bottom-line findings are the same as in CEP's press releases. The Ravitch reviewers did no independent testing of the students, but relied on data furnished by CEP. It embraces the school's claims of two-grade learning jumps for students after just one year.

Last September HISD's Kellow did his own evaluation, based not on CEP-generated findings, but on recognized testing standards for all the kids in the district. Kellow looked at CEP students' scores on the TAAS and the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT-9). He found that both reading and math scores on the Texas Learning Index (which shows growth) and the percentage of students who passed the TAAS were actually lower after they attended CEP. The same for the SAT-9.

"When I first started looking at the data, I was shaking my head," Kellow says. "I ran it and reran it. It seemed like as soon as you hit the door it didn't do you any good -- but the longer you stayed there, the worse you got."

Kellow's results were sent to Paige in a September 10 memo. Then Paige sent out a memo of his own, Kellow remembers. Paige wanted to know how many HISD students were needed from every school to fill out the CEP program, Kellow says.

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