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?

There are no private school options for Joseph's family, because both his parents are unemployed and on disability.

Three sets of parents with a few more choices -- Rayette and Kirkland Fulk, Brenda and Roy Jones and Rufus Brown -- filed suit on May 15 against HISD. (CEP has been dropped from the suit.) They say that the 180-day provision in the HISD contract violates HISD's code of student conduct as well as Chapter 37.009 of the Texas Education Code, which calls for a review of the student's progress at least by the time 120 days have passed. They are not seeking compensatory or punitive damages, just what they see is their right to due process and a change in the way HISD does business.

The Press asked both acting Superintendent Kaye Stripling and Larry Marshall for interviews. Stripling sent word through the district's media relations office that she didn't have time because she had back-to-back meetings and preferred that Marshall handle any Press questions about CEP. Asked again and told the Press would wait more than a week for "five to ten minutes' time including nights, early mornings and weekends" with the superintendent, Heather Browne, the new head of public relations for HISD, said Stripling couldn't comment because of the litigation.

Lynette with son Marshall: She blames HISD and CEP for ignoring his attention problems.
Deron Neblett
Lynette with son Marshall: She blames HISD and CEP for ignoring his attention problems.
JP Risner says CEP "would just suck off" county services.
Deron Neblett
JP Risner says CEP "would just suck off" county services.

Yet Stripling had no problem with someone else representing the district -- someone who works for CEP.

HISD's contract calls for it to pay for 2,000 students to go to CEP, whether they're there or not. (It can enroll as many as 2,500 for the same price.) The Texas House's Public Education Committee didn't think too much of this; chairman Paul Sadler, a Democrat from Henderson, called it a quota system.

Representative Scott Hochberg, a Houston Democrat, has served on the state's public education committee for five years and says the changes the legislature made in the education code were never intended to be applied so rigidly as in the HISD-CEP contract.

"The Safe School Act was designed to give the teacher the right to remove a disruptive student from a class," Hochberg says. "I'm concerned about safety in the schools. I'm also concerned that people use common sense.

"This whole section of alternative education is probably the most difficult legislation to write," he says. "You don't want to see disruptive kids back in the classroom. But where do you build the due process in without undermining the teachers?" He doesn't like what he calls the "nonquota quota" of the 180-day minimum term at CEP. "I think that's as bad as a policy that would go too far in the other direction."

(Several students and their parents said the sentence can be even longer if the home school won't accept them back. And one, whose term was up in October, says he was told he couldn't transfer back at that time; he couldn't return until after the winter break.

According to HISD's Browne, this would violate district policy. "Once a student has completed his/her term at CEP, the home school is required to take the student back," she says. "There is no reason a school should refuse to take a student back.")

Yet even CEP head Randle Richardson confirms the students' accounts, agreeing that some HISD schools refuse to accept kids back from CEP. He says this occurs with less than 1 percent of the students at CEP.

"If the real selling point of CEP is that they offer individualized instruction, then that should apply to [students'] progress as well, and would directly impact the length of placement," Hochberg says.

Representative Dora Olivo, a Rosenberg Democrat and former schoolteacher, was among the small group of legislators who met with HISD school board members Jeff Shadwick and Laurie Bricker, both strong proponents of CEP, and attorney David Thompson this month to discuss CEP and other matters. This meeting came as a follow-up to an earlier appearance before the public education committee by a small group of Houston parents fighting their children's continued CEP placement. Olivo termed the follow-up meeting "disappointing."

She says she is very concerned about CEP and that far too many children are being sent there at the home school's discretion and not for any reason demanded by law. "Every day a student is in school is important. You're building a foundation every day. Sometimes I wonder, 'What do students think about us when we put them in a situation like this?' "

As it turns out, CEP's contracts are not all alike -- even in Texas. For instance, Fort Bend ISD sent 42 students to CEP in the first year of its contract, but its district officials say there is no quota, and the kids don't have to stay 180 days. They just go for however long they were expelled. "Whatever the expulsion order says," states Fort Bend area superintendent Gary Crowell. (This is another point of discrepancy: CEP's Richardson says, "All CEP contracts guarantee a minimum enrollment.") Despite CEP's literature, which frequently says that sending a student for anything less than a full school year is a recipe for disaster, Crowell pronounces himself pleased with CEP on the shorter term. "We've had a very good year with them," he says.

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