Learning How to Survive (at) CEP

HISD and a paid trustee get entangled in the spreading empire of a private firm touting safe alternative schools for troubled kids. So why are some students and parents so scared?

At 5:53 p.m. the phone rings. Joseph Flores picks it up and puts it right back down. A recorded message says Joseph wasn't at school today. This is something his parents already know. "He flat refused to go," says his mother, Maria Purdy.

Playing with his miniature Doberman, Joseph looks up. "I refuse," he reiterates. "They're always jumping me, they're hitting me -- the teachers don't do nothing. They turn their back or they watch."

Joseph is a student at Community Education Partners, which has a $17.9 million annual contract with the Houston Independent School District to educate students who've gotten in trouble at school and need extra help. The alternative school program is promoted as a safe, structured and self-paced way to get at-risk kids back on track, while at the same time removing their disruptive behavior from their home schools. Given 180 days, it promises to advance students at least one grade level.

CEP's many supporters tout its two Houston campuses, Beechnut and Ferndale, as the answer to the inspired vision of U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige while he was HISD superintendent. According to school board member Larry Marshall, Paige emerged from years of trying to make public school alternative education work, with the realization that something else was needed. "He was coming out of denial. He said that Terrell School" -- the district's alternative program -- "was a miserable failure."

Marshall, who was an HISD administrator for several years before going on the school board, says he could have told Paige that after his own six-month stint at Terrell, but he never did. He just listened. Paige wasn't going to turn these kids out on the street, he was going to save them -- but with a new strategy.

"We have never had a handle in any school on how to deal with at-risk kids," Marshall asserts. "We never came up with a model that came close to CEP. We weren't smart enough. We needed lower enrollment." They also needed teachers who knew how to deal with alternative education kids, he says. In-school suspension programs often don't work, Marshall says. "All you do is find the biggest coach in the district to sit in there with the kids."

His arguments on behalf of CEP seem to come from the heart, particularly when Marshall mentions that he "lost a son due to this violence out there." His son had met all his course-work requirements but couldn't pass his exit exam in algebra. He was out on the street, hanging around with buddies who were doing drugs, when he took a ride he shouldn't have and was shot to death three years ago, Marshall says.

Marshall is also a paid consultant for CEP. He says it was his 35 years of experience with alternative schools that caused CEP to approach him for the job. He's being greatly rewarded for that experience now: CEP pays him $72,000 a year for four days of work each month ($1,500 a day).

Details of his financial arrangement with CEP surfaced during Marshall's February 6 deposition in a lawsuit by former HISD administrator Frank Watson. He accuses Marshall of trying to unethically influence HISD to do business with a health care provider that had also paid Marshall for consulting services.

In the deposition, Marshall says he discussed going to work for CEP with Paige. Since signing on, he has traveled to Dallas; Cleveland; Dayton, Ohio; Atlanta; New Orleans; Denver and Savannah on CEP's behalf. In three of those cities he attended the National Black Mayors Conference, pitching "CEP's model." At other times, he says, he met with superintendents offering them "technical assistance" and "strategies" to help them get their school trustees on board with CEP. In Dayton, he was part of CEP's presentation at a nationwide superintendents' conference. He has no notes, makes no reports in his CEP work.

In reply to a question about whether CEP is Marshall's only client currently, Marshall says: "Yes. Serving as president of the [school] board has been very expensive."

Marshall, who says he consulted with school board attorneys David Thompson and Kelly Frels before accepting the CEP offer, says he avoids conflicts of interest because he doesn't discuss or vote on CEP matters before the HISD board. Of course, by doing so he has surrendered any voice or leadership in this matter for the people who elected him -- and even the slightest watchdog role in making CEP accountable to HISD. He's made two CEP-paid trips to Washington, D.C., including to Paige's swearing-in. "I admire and respect the organization," he says. "I think they will begin to impact the country."

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, represents the teachers at the two CEP campuses in Houston and the one in Dallas. Proudly, she says that these are the only teachers in the state who are able to bargain their contract. She is also a fervid and frequent supporter of CEP, where her godson was enrolled until recently. She credits CEP with making him a more respectful and polite young man. He still, she sighs, does not want to do his homework. (CEP would be no help in this area, since there is no homework at CEP; students are not allowed to take books home.)

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