Learning Curve

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

Students were wrongly placed or promoted, she wrote. "This unbelievable lapse in judgment is appalling," Pritchard continued. "CEP is not a school that cares about its students; CEP is a corporation that cares about money and profits."

Next to leave was Sandy Cortez-Rucker. She resigned three days after the firing of Montross, who had hired her as dean of students after working with her in the past. Cortez-Rucker says her only choice was to stay at Ferndale, where she was told to falsify records -- and risk losing her teaching certification -- or leave. So she left. She didn't want to, because she is the sole provider for her family since her husband is working on his doctorate in school psychology. "Dr. Montross was fired because of the information I gave her," Cortez-Rucker says. "I was next on the list."

Several other employees left CEP too, saying they didn't want to be a part of illegal activities. Ellen Robinson, who found the ungraded finals, quit immediately. "It didn't feel right, it didn't look right, and I needed out of there. I cut and run, and I'm glad I did," she says. "They're taking federal money, they're taking state money, and they're falsifying. I worked too hard to become a teacher, and I'm well respected with what I do, and I have no desire to lose my certification over some kind of crazy foolishness. I got out." She had been hired by Montross and had worked with her for years.

Both Montross and Cortez-Rucker hired attorney Ellen Sprovach and filed lawsuits in state district court accusing CEP of retaliating against them because they refused to engage in unethical and illegal activities.

Cortez-Rucker says that when a student's record did not have a grade, she was ordered to average existing grades and make one up. She also alleges that CEP does not maintain proper TAAS records or administer the TAAS correctly. Sitting in her attorney's office, she rubs her hands together. She says that the stress from her unemployment has worsened her rheumatoid arthritis. She hasn't found a new job yet; her husband wants her to start working on a Ph.D.

Amy Folse is also gone from CEP. When she received her last paycheck, she mailed her resignation letter the next day. "I wasn't going back," she says. "I didn't care if I had to clean out urinals -- I wasn't going back to CEP. No way."


Company officials, and even the public school districts that contract with them, play down the departures and revelations at the Ferndale campus.

For HISD, this isn't the first time CEP has been accused of falsifying student progress. Last spring the Pressreported that an in-house HISD evaluator found that students' academic scores were getting worse the longer they stayed at CEP -- despite claims by Superintendent Rod Paige and others that CEP kids were making fantastic progress.

The evaluator 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 lower after they attended CEP. [See "Making (Up) the Grade," by Wendy Grossman, April 6.] HISD and CEP denied the validity of the study and challenged the competency of HISD's own evaluator. Before the district could issue him a letter of reprimand for misusing district computers for posting his concerns on an evaluators' chatboard, he resigned.

While the Ferndale accusations focus on students from the Pasadena district, HISD would seemingly be concerned because it has the vast majority of students under CEP supervision. However, HISD spokesperson Terry Abbott says that the district has found no falsification of records. CEP has responded to every HISD request to "improve the learning opportunities," he says. "They are now requiring that principals and other supervisors inspect and correct any problems in the classroom," he says. Asked what problems he is referring to, Abbott refuses to elaborate.

In short, as far as HISD is concerned, everything is under control.

Kirk Lewis, executive director of communications and community relations for the Pasadena Independent School District, says the district is now "comfortable" with its relationship with CEP. But at contract time it wasn't happy.

"We did have some issues last year with some of the grades that were lost and misplaced and attendance was not being reported back to the school as accurately as we needed to be," he says. "We couldn't really figure out exactly how it happened. We ended up being able to assign the students a grade that everyone was comfortable with, but it took us a lot of hassle, a lot of work, to get to this point."

As for the lawsuits, CEO Richardson says he didn't know of them until the Presscalled him. Since the plaintiffs were both managers, he thinks the lawsuits stem from their desire to get money, not from any wrongdoing.

Anthony Edwards told Richardson that he fired Montross because "in the course of training he felt like she would not be able to handle the school," Richardson says. "On more than one occasion he gave directions to her that he didn't feel was followed. He made the decision before school started that she couldn't run the school and dismissed her."

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