180 Days in the Hole

HISD insists that kids sent to its alternative school should spend an entire year there, no matter what. What a crock.

Drew Fulk should be sitting in his second-year German class at Bellaire High right now, perfecting his accent along with the rest of the Guten morgen Herr Webercrowd. But that's blown.

The sophomore should be meeting up with his pals, making plans for after school and the weekend. That's gone, too. No friends. No meets. Absolutely no partying.

In February, Drew and four others were caught at Bellaire High with what was alleged to be about three ounces of marijuana. Suspended for three days, allowed back to take his TAAS tests, Drew was then given a letter telling him he was out and being sent to HISD's alternative education facility. Appeals by his parents to Principal Bill Lawson and his superiors went nowhere.

Not dead, but certainly written off, Drew spends his weekdays getting fingerprinted, searched and surveilled as he plugs himself into a computer for hours on end. No, it's not jail. It's school, Community Educations Partners-style, with no fancy foreign languages like German, no froufrou electives and no lively classroom banter. It's what HISD touts as a wonderful last-chance option for schooling disruptive, troubled youth.

As HISD sees it, it's a win-win situation. The home school loses the bad guys, which makes those schools safer. CEP offers a structured environment, a chance to learn for low-performing students who often test out years behind their peers.

But not everyone is quite so convinced that CEP is the perfect solution. As its net has expanded, as HISD aims toward an ever growing number of students to be sent to CEP -- now at 2,500 minimum -- some students have been gathered up who aren't below grade level, who aren't disruptive, who are very upset (along with their parents) to find themselves facing a year in lockdown.

In its rush to make schools safe, in its attempt to keep taxpayers happy by saving building costs, HISD places children with this private corporation that promotes itself as being able to accelerate learning. Accelerate learning, as in move a 16-year-old from reading at the second-grade level to the fourth. The district pays CEP so much a day to take on these children and washes its hands of them.

Are there some really tough kids who should be in a secure facility instead of disrupting their home school, making education impossible or dangerous for everyone else? You bet. But there are others in there who might be your son or daughter, who've stumbled, screwed up, maybe with too many tardies, too many absences, been found in possession of small amounts of drugs.

Rayette and Kirk Fulk, an attorney, have no quarrel with HISD punishing Drew. They punished him themselves and have told the district repeatedly they are not challenging their son being sent to CEP. What they are challenging is the length of his sentence.

You see, there's no discretion left because of HISD's CEP contract. In every case, offenders are sentenced to 180 days -- the equivalent of an entire Texas public school year -- in mind-numbing hell. The district and CEP say that's the amount of time needed for these students to improve their behavior and academics. But these students are ringed by computers and technicians, not teachers. Since CEP is a private firm, according to Texas law, there doesn't have to be a single certified teacher in the lot. Also, because it's an off-campus disciplinary program, CEP is exempt from any requirement that the courses it offers would lead to high school graduation.

The good kids among them hope to make it to the honors group, a goal reached by virtue of good behavior rather than good grades. That group offers an escape from the number of fights plaguing the lower groups, fights that staff members often step away from, kids and parents say.

Many of the CEP assignees are kids who in any other Texas public school would be serving a few weeks in ISS (in-school suspension) or in an alternate facility. In Texas, the average stay is about 26 school days or about the equivalent of a six-week grading period. But because they're the beneficiaries of a ridiculous one-size-fits-all, $17.9 million HISD contract with CEP, they're in for the long term. HISD guarantees CEP a minimum enrollment of 2,500 students and has to pay for them whether they're there or not. Principals get regular reports on how many of their students are ending up at CEP -- and how many more slots they have available to fill.

It's pretty clear what the thrust of that message is.

Comparisons with other school districts aside, HISD's contract with CEP appears to fly in the face of its own student conduct code, which is based upon the state model. A student is supposed to be removed from his home school for a period extending beyond the end of the school year only if:

The student's presence in the regular classroom program or at the home school presents a danger of physical harm to the student on other individuals; or

The student has engaged in serious or persistent misbehavior that violates the district's Code of Student Conduct. Serious offenses are those that substantially disrupt or materially interfere with the orderly process in the classroom, HISD transportation, the school, or any school-related activity. Persistent shall be defined as chronic or repeated instances of Level II and higher misconduct.

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