Learning Curve

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

But CEP's biggest claim -- what none of the nonprofit education programs offers -- is its 100 percent satisfaction money-back guarantee. If the company doesn't increase attendance and improve a student's learning by two grade levels during a full school year, then it doesn't get paid. Officials promise that they will re-educate that student for free.

That sounds like a great deal. But the guarantee that students will pass under CEP's tutelage transformed into the fact that students must pass, says Kim Pritchard, an educator who recently resigned from Ferndale. She was told that students could not fail.

Pritchard provided the Houston Press with stacks of CEP student report cards. If a student had a failing grade or "incomplete" written on the card, the grade was crossed out and replaced by a flat 70 -- just enough to pass.

Pritchard: "Unethical and oftentimes illegal practices" by CEP caused her to resign.
Deron Neblett
Pritchard: "Unethical and oftentimes illegal practices" by CEP caused her to resign.

In many cases the student report cards show straight 70s -- in every subject for every six weeks. That is highly improbable, if not impossible. Pritchard explains that if a student's work was missing and a teacher hadn't turned in grades, then a supervisor used her "professional judgment" and either averaged the grades she had or made them up.

Pritchard sent the supervisor (who is no longer with CEP either) an e-mail dated May 3 refusing to log newly created grades. "I do not feel right entering grades that I know are fabricated," she wrote. "I'm sorry, but this is one thing that I am adamant about. I have been a teacher too long and I cannot justify doing this. I hope you understand."

So the supervisor entered the data herself, Pritchard says.

Pritchard's frustration is echoed by a former learning manager. "That school needs to be closed down," says Kimberly Moore. "Ain't a damn thing being learned in that school. Nothing."

Last December CEP Chief Executive Officer Randle Richardson asked a Ferndale administrator to compile a list of concerns about the school. That way they wouldn't make the same mistakes at other schools. The administrator, after speaking with teachers, students and other employees, typed up a seven-page memo that isn't as glowing as the Ravitch report.

CEP is supposed to be an accelerated learning program, yet the report notes that some courses had so much work that they took longer to complete than at a regular school. It says that students have a hard time earning credits and that teachers have a hard time keeping up with the grading.

"Being an individualized self-paced program presents a problem in and of itself," the report says. Teachers are responsible for grading all subjects from sometimes 30 students all working at a different grade level. A shortage or even absence of teacher's edition textbooks compounds problems because those are needed for instructors to grade tests and related work, the memo says. Teachers give up trying to really grade the work. "Instead, they give a grade for turning in work (passing grades are being given, whether the content is correct or not) and move on, because "real grading is just too difficult.' "

Also, the self-paced program wasn't working for special education kids who don't read well (if at all) and can't motivate themselves and work on their own. Yet another problem was science labs. In a regular school, students at the same learning level would all participate in standardized lab work. At CEP, each student does a lab whenever he wants to, at his individual grade level. Teachers don't have time to buy the wide variety of materials needed for the different labs. And it's hard for instructors to supervise one student doing an all-day lab with toxic chemicals, while overseeing other students and their projects at the same time.

Under the heading "Accountability," the report notes that since most of the teachers do not have an educator's background, they don't really understand what is expected of students at different grade levels. "Consequently, students are being allowed to turn in work that is completed far beneath their "expected' level (I have seen high school coursework that looks as if an elementary student completed it; the teacher graded it 100)."

The report also notes numerous issues with accuracy of grades. The document notes that supervisors spent 90 percent of their time dealing with student behavior when they're supposed to be responsible for education.

The report was sent to corporate headquarters, but the trouble continued. Instructors say they felt ineffective. "I don't feel like I taught anything," says former teacher Nicole Perkins. "All I did was baby-sit."

Regular school teachers find it hard to teach with one kid sitting in the back disrupting the class, but at CEP teachers have a room full of often badly behaving students. Moore, the former learning manager, showed the Press a stack of original handwritten discipline reports. Students have learned how to rig paper clips to the backs of TV monitors in order to watch regular network shows instead of school programming. Students gambled, shooting craps in the classroom, came to school stoned and cursed at teachers. Fights broke out on a daily basis, Moore says.

She walked into a classroom last February when a student was assaulting the teacher, and the girl turned her fists on Moore. Knowing Moore was four months pregnant, the girl punched Moore's belly until Moore wrestled the girl to the ground, she says. (Moore had asked not to be in the section with the more dangerous kids who had committed felonies when she found out she was pregnant. She says she was told to quit if she couldn't handle it.)

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