Learning Curve

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

Moore ended up with $386 in medical expenses (to make sure her baby was okay) and was fired over the phone a few months later. The reason for her termination, she says, was that a student accused her of allowing him to be beaten while under her supervision. She was never given the opportunity to respond to the accusations, she says.

An often large student-teacher ratio can create a dangerous environment. According to CEP's contract, there are supposed to be about 12 students per teacher. But Amy Folse says she was the only teacher in her classroom of about 30 students. CEP doesn't have classroom phones or other links for emergency help. "If something happens, all you can do is open your door and scream," Folse says. Working in an environment where teachers were regularly assaulted was highly stressful and made teaching difficult, she says.

Lack of materials also made Folse's job hard. The Houston Chronicle reported that all CEP student computers are equipped with Pentium processors. "They are meticulously maintained by an on-site maintenance crew and through a comprehensive service agreement with the manufacturer." Yet Folse has e-mails she sent to the computer experts saying that the computers would not let students log onto the system, wouldn't allow teachers to save materials and sometimes wouldn't even boot up.

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.

Pritchard e-mailed her supervisor saying that two instructional areas did not have enough computers and that the students were getting unruly because they didn't have any work to do. They were bored.

Folse says her students did not have books for the majority of the semester. She had to drive across town to the Beechnut campus and pick them up herself. When the Pasadena ISD officials toured her classroom, books were taken from HISD students and given to her Pasadena students, Folse says. "It was a show," she says.

The shortage of teacher's editions of books caused some of the most serious problems. Folse taught students ranging from fifth to 12th grade and needed the special editions to help provide the answers to grade papers and tests for the variety of students. But those books were kept in a locked room, and she documented the numerous times the door was locked.

If teachers didn't know the answers, they couldn't grade the work. If they didn't grade the work, then the teachers got written up, Moore says, so often teachers made grades up. "They had to," Moore says.

Montross seemed like a perfect fit for CEP. She's been an educator for 25 years and holds a doctorate in education administration. She taught at the University of Missouri, was an evaluator for the Dallas Independent School District's magnet program and spent the last eight years as an administrator in the Windham School District (part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice). "I know how to go in and get a school going," she says.

She especially wanted to work at CEP after her involvement in the prison system. She thought that CEP was a great program; she liked its goal of keeping kids from falling through the cracks and ending up in jail. "They need serious help," she says. "We can't just keep locking them up."

Everyone at CEP seemed happy when she joined the staff. She flew to the Nashville headquarters, met the top executives and went through training.

She met with Pasadena Independent School District officials who told Montross they didn't trust the records CEP provided them. She promised that under her supervision, records would be accurate. With such assurances, the Pasadena district renewed the contract.

Yet at the Ferndale campus, she says, she was never even given her own office. Anthony Edwards never vacated his lush office with comfy leather chairs, a framed Sam Houston diploma and quotations in calligraphy about God helping students succeed. Montross was promised that eventually she would be given his office. In the meantime, she worked at a table in a supply closet with Edwards's stored files, a water fountain and the office coffeepot.

From her supply closet, she fielded phone calls from parents angry about the missing report cards. Attendance records were in a shambles. "Students were counted absent when they were there and being cited absent when they were not," Montross says. She searched for a master attendance list, but she couldn't find one.

Montross discovered the fabricated grades and tried to rectify what she saw as a mess. But when she pointed out the illegal activities, CEP executives got angry, she says.

Edwards told her she was "grossly incompetent" and that he was firing her because she called his boss and tattled. A July 17 memo from Chief Operating Officer Leftwich said: "Always honor the chain of command, be a good follower." But it also said: "It's your duty to disagree with your boss if you think you're right."

On the day after Montross was fired, Pritchard handed in a four-page single-spaced letter of resignation after less than a year at CEP. Montross, she wrote, was the best thing that had ever happened to CEP. "The continuation of unethical and oftentimes illegal practices by management personnel at CEP has caused me to make this decision," she wrote.

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