Learning Curve

Ungraded exams. Suspect scores. Departing teachers and lawsuits. Is this alternative school really passing the test on its highly touted educational claims?

Kids caught the last of the summer sun while teachers returned to school. The two weeks before students swarm in and school starts is usually a peaceful, pleasant time. The halls are empty and quiet as instructors plan lessons and decorate classrooms.

Dr. Kathyrn Montross had even more reason to anticipate the beginning of this fall's semester at the Ferndale school, operated by the private company Community Education Partners. The alternative program contracts with public school districts to teach badly behaving students who might otherwise fail. Only a month before the semester's start, the company hired Montross as administrator at Ferndale.

She was trying to rally the teachers and get everyone ready to greet the kids and kick off a dynamic new school year. But staff training and leisurely what-did-you-do-on-your-summer-vacation talks were soon interrupted. The school was bombarded with angry parents who couldn't wait for the first PTA meeting. They were mad. They wanted answers immediately.

Montross says CEP officials fired her for reporting serious problems at Ferndale.
Deron Neblett
Montross says CEP officials fired her for reporting serious problems at Ferndale.

Montross was surprised to learn that their children had not even received report cards from the spring semester. Parents didn't know what grades or what credits their children had received. They had no idea what level their children were going to be in -- or even where they would be placed the next year.

Teachers pitched in and searched for the missing cards. They found an unmailed stack of nearly 200 report cards for Ferndale students from the Pasadena Independent School District. They also found a matching stack of the same students' four-month-old final exams that had never been graded. Those tests account for 25 percent of the final grade. So Montross wondered where the grades on the report cards had come from. Employees, she recalls, told her that they had been made up.

On their hands and knees, Montross and her staff looked under cabinets and waded through boxes in search of students' academic folders. But most of the work was missing. Montross was certain she could find the students' work to justify the grades and assuage the 20 to 30 angry parents calling her every day. "The work had to be somewhere," she says. "But it wasn't."

Concerned that grades had been fabricated, Montross went to her boss, former Ferndale school administrator Anthony Edwards, on August 11. In an account of events that is sharply disputed by CEP officials, Montross recalls Edwards telling her that the ungraded exams and unsent report cards weren't important. He said that she needed to focus on getting the new school year started.

Frustrated with his repeated brush-offs, Montross phoned CEP headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, and talked to Chief Operating Officer Scott Leftwich. It was August 15, the day before school started, and she told Leftwich she felt uncomfortable stepping out of CEP's chain of command. But as a respected educator she felt far more uncomfortable with fabricated grades.

After she outlined her concerns, Montross says, Leftwich -- like Edwards -- told her she just needed to concentrate on starting the school year and not worry about the past. He assured her that he would keep her call confidential, she remembers.

At 9 p.m. that day she was fired.

Since Montross's departure, other teachers and staffers have left the Ferndale school, frustrated by what some of them say is a shoddy operation that has fabricated grades and related records, withheld needed supplies and ignored students.

Governor George W. Bush in 1995 signed off on a state policy to help keep troubled kids from falling through the cracks of the system. Texas mandated that counties provide education for students who had been expelled from regular classes for school-related felonies. CEP was formed shortly thereafter by high-ranking Tennessee Republican Party officials who appeared to have more political clout than educational credentials. CEP's first contract came with the Harris County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program. That has expanded into a lucrative contract with HISD guaranteeing CEP 2,500 students over the span of the school year.

Houston has two campuses: Ferndale and Beechnut. Both were dedicated by former president George Bush, who gave warm speeches about how the new schools give kids hope for the future and a chance to succeed. In exchange for an HISD contract of about $9 million, CEP has helped lower the district's crime rate and has taken disruptive kids out of regular classrooms.

Houston school officials and Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, report that classrooms are more pleasant, more peaceful, without the troublemakers. By enlisting CEP's help, HISD is aiming to stop senseless social promotion; they don't want to pass kids who don't deserve to pass.

Last year CEP expanded to take in about 250 students from the Pasadena Independent School District and about 200 from the county's alternative education program. The company also has a school in Dallas and negotiated a five-year contract with a school district in Philadelphia. In five years CEO Randle Richardson hopes to have a dozen schools operating nationwide.

Last year respected educators and researchers Diane Ravitch and Mary Butz gave a glowing evaluation of CEP and its ability to escalate student learning rates. They praised the tranquil setting. Students rarely leave the classroom. There is no school library, and there are no lockers. A CEP facility doesn't look like a traditional school -- there aren't even blackboards or dry-erase boards in the classrooms. Instead, students sit at work stations lining the walls and rely on computer programs and video learning. Instructors rarely do standard teaching since CEP relies on students to work on their own and set their own pace. The Ravitch report said the kids were "engaged" at their computer terminals and that the program was highly effective.

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