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.

It is hard to understand how a student who is caught on a first-time minor drug offense matches either of the qualifications that HISD itself sets as the standards for removal to CEP. Yet that is what the district is doing to meet its numbers.

There is supposed to be an appeals process, but parents say they are told by principals that there is no latitude, that CEP equals a mandatory 180-day sentence.

Billy Jacobs has been director of the Texas Education Agency's Safe School Division since July 1996. The TEA does not step in and tell a local district how long it can send its students to an alternative program, Jacobs says. He acknowledges, however, that Houston is on the outer edge of the punishment range and that increasingly, parents are complaining to the state about that.

Kirk and Rayette Fulk are challenging the length of their son's sentence.
Margaret Downing
Kirk and Rayette Fulk are challenging the length of their son's sentence.

Disruptive students should be removed, Jacobs says. But the point of "zero tolerance," which Jacobs says is frequently misunderstood, is to also get them refocused and then back into the mainstream as soon as possible. "This is contrary to what we see in CEP."

"If a student is somewhat disruptive or violating minor rules and nondisruptive, I can't justify that they should have the same amount of time" as a student who commits a more serious criminal act, Jacobs says.

In recent weeks, parents have become more vocal in their objections. Rebuffed by a united booster front from HISD administrators, educators and school board members, a group of parents traveled to Austin on March 27. To their amazement, they found a serious audience with the House Public Education Committee, whose chairman, Representative Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, openly questioned the contract. The committee called for an investigation.

Kaye Stripling, HISD interim superintendent, wrote Sadler on March 29 to respond to some of his questions. In the letter, she touted the program's worth, while conceding that "there are often circumstances where improvements are necessary." She goes on to say the district will be "examining its alternative programs … and applicable district policies for more opportunities for improvement."

In what appears to be a bit more of a break with the past, HISD just last week issued a terse statement saying that HISD will begin negotiations with CEP to "re-examine the terms" of its contract.

Even the company's CEO, Randle Richardson, in a conversation with the Houston Press from his Nashville office, says that in the case of students coming to CEP who are already performing at grade level, "the program probably ought to be reviewed to see how their behavior is going. The program was not contemplated for that type of student.

"I'll be the first to tell you that when you're at grade level and your behavior comes back in line, you should go back to your home school."

Every day Jose goes to the back door of the CEP school on Beechnut. "You go in, they start yelling at you. You take off your shoes." Shirts are pulled out, pockets too. He stands spread-eagled against the wall, getting patted down, including his groin, five days a week. He's 15. Then he goes to his pod.

Jose, not his real name, is Hispanic like most of the kids there. Unlike most of them, he's at grade level and has held a responsible job outside of school for years. He says the kids who want to work do work, and those who want to play, play. Horseplay is common, with kids jumping all over the place. As long as the kids are pretty quiet, there's no attempt to stop them.

"You're supposed to work on the computer until the day is over. Most of the kids work for 15 minutes," Jose says. There's no set lunchtime. Things are better now than during orientation when they often didn't eat until 3:30 p.m. Food is brought over from HISD. Now that they're eating earlier, the food is still warm some of the time.

The work is endless and not very challenging. There's always another computer program to move on to, Jose says, and most of it is far below his grade level. The textbook work is better, he says. They get gym two times a week. He's not allowed to take any books home.

He has no respect for the faculty, calls them corrupt. He says they can't answer questions, they don't do their jobs. The "teachers" have kids grade each other's work and the kids make up grades, handing out 95s and 100s right and left, he says. On a couple of questions on a computer test there were four multiple-choice answers -- but no question. When he brought that up to his pod leader, he was told to just guess an answer and hope it was the right one for the unknown question.

Jose was assigned to CEP after a first-time drug offense. He tries to stay out of trouble and keep to himself as much as possible. He talks about quitting school if he has to go to CEP next year. He says he knows when he turns 16 he can drop out. His mother says no way is that going to happen.

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