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.

Randle Richardson clearly wants to make sure that his business weathers this storm. He denies previous reports of grade fixing at CEP's Houston schools. He says an earlier principal, for instance, didn't understand that the 200 report cards she thought had never been mailed out were duplicates of ones that made it to every home, with eight exceptions.

Asked about Jose's remarks about grading papers, Richardson is at first defensive, demanding the name of the class and the student; later saying that probably at any school in HISD, including his own, not every teacher is always doing what they should. He insists that in a team-teaching environment, it would take a conspiracy to operate inappropriately for long; that his personnel report problems and that these are investigated. "Our school administrators are held accountable."

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.

As for course offerings, Richardson says, "We're not an [advanced placement] program. No other alternative program offers that." He says he can understand why a parent with a child with a behavioral issue alone would be disappointed in the course offerings, and how the student might be bored.

As for the mandatory length of stay, Richardson says that is the decision of HISD, not CEP. The company recommended it after years of work that showed 45-day stays usually helped turn around the behavior, but did little for the academics. Continued poor academics at their home school usually resulted in more poor behavior that got them tossed right back into the alternative facility, Richardson says. So in Houston, Dallas and now Philadelphia, CEP contracts call for a 180-day minimum.

As for the noncriminal kid who screws up one time but is at grade level, well, Richardson says: "What we have here is an unintended consequence."

Connie Anderson noticed her son was having problems with his grades. Her son had been used to a smaller school setting at another district's middle school and now he was trying to negotiate the mega-village known as Lamar High.

So Anderson did what any good parent should do: She asked for a meeting with her son's teachers and school counselor to see if they could get him back on track. It was at this meeting she found out that her ninth-grader had also been skipping school -- a lot.

Upset, she appealed to the educators for help. A single mother since the sudden death of her husband two years ago, she had made a job move from League City into the Houston district. Her other son, the first one's twin, was thriving. But this boy always needed a little more attention, especially since his father died.

"The only thing I was offered was CEP," she says. "I went out there, took a look at it. It's a lockdown program. It's scary."

She went back to Lamar. Isn't there something else, something else you can do for him? No, they told her. He's continuing to cut classes, to talk when he shouldn't, to talk back to teachers. CEP is the only choice.

Finally they sent her a notice. Her son's attendance was now mandatory at CEP. It was only at that 11th hour that another parent told her of another way out: charter schools.

"He just changed schools at the beginning of March. He's going to Heights Charter School. He's doing well there," she says. "He's not cutting."

The principal at Heights Charter has told Anderson her son is doing fine. He's also told her that if her son had gone to CEP first, as the school district was demanding, he could not have been admitted to the charter school.

Parents have options, of course. A child can drop out. The family can move to another district, although parents say they have been told by surrounding districts that HISD's discipline decisions will be honored. It's late in the year for private schools to admit new students, and besides, part of what goes with their admission fees is an implied guarantee that they will weed out any potential problems.

It's not just that schools don't want bad kids anymore. They don't want questionable kids, students who might cause any sort of blip on a principal's school record.

Brenda Jones has a son who was recently sent to CEP's Beechnut facility, and she is doing everything she can to change that. On Fridays, she hands out green slips of paper to other parents, urging them to unite against what the district is doing. She'd like to find an attorney to represent them as a group.

"Yes, he should be removed from the classroom," she says of her son. "But it should be until the end of the year." To go beyond that, Jones says, is cruel and unusual punishment.

Parents like Brenda Jones and the Fulks are afraid their children will never catch up again the longer they are at CEP schools, which Jones calls "academic death camps."

Drew Fulk entered CEP as a sophomore. Ten days after he completed orientation, he was told he'd satisfied all his course requirements and was now a junior.

"We love Drew to death," Rayette Fulk says. "But he is not a junior."

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