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?

Actually, the first contract CEP had in the Houston area was with the Harris County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program. Dave Wingard contracted with CEP on behalf of the county and was initially enthusiastic, but later saw numerous problems with the program. He says CEP never provided the services it should have by contract.

Wingard, who is no longer with the county, says CEP dumped JJAEP after it got the $17.9 million HISD contract. "They made it clear the county was an albatross." He says the same thing happened to the JJAEP program in Dallas -- dumped after the Dallas ISD signed on with CEP. The juvenile justice contracts were smaller, less lucrative and without quotas -- but with the kids who were the hardest to handle.

In a March 7 letter to Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, Richardson says that he is ending their five-year relationship. "CEP has spent $12.9 million and received revenues of $9.1 million," he writes, and the 115 students enrolled at CEP via the JJAEP program is down from a high of 700 in the '96-'97 school year. He also cites "concerns of ISD parents who do not want their children assigned to the same campus as students adjudicated for felony offenses."

Joseph has to take pills to get the courage to attend CEP's school.
Deron Neblett
Joseph has to take pills to get the courage to attend CEP's school.

In a similar letter to Dallas one year earlier, Richardson says, "CEP has suffered $4.1 million in losses" and by the end of the contract would lose more than $5 million serving the JJAEP program there.

Dallas ISD doesn't have the money to pay its teachers' insurance, yet it has a five-year, $50 million deal with CEP. Last fall there were fewer than 300 students enrolled at the Dallas CEP. District trustees renegotiated the contract, lowering the enrollment from 1,500 to 1,400, expanded eligibility to middle schools and doubled the stay at CEP from 90 to 180 days. Principals were required to send students after their fourth on-campus offense such as assault or theft. Still, in January there were only 347 students, although CEP says there are now 800 enrolled.

The new superintendent, Mike Moses, told The Dallas Morning News on January 29 that "there are obvious concerns" about the contract, and ordered an audit from the comptroller's office, which will be available in early June.

"It's a bad contract that we entered into," says Dallas school board member Hollis Brashear. "They've been feeling their way through this, making changes and making improvements. It's been a very flat learning curve on the part of CEP to perform the way they indicated they could. Needless to say, I have not been impressed with the program….It's clear that the cost per student is exorbitantly high, and obviously if we continue with them we'll have to have some serious modifications of the contract."

The contract is far more favorable to CEP than to the district or to the students themselves, says board member Lois Parrott. "It's almost like a voucher system, but it's not called that, so no one recognizes it. I call it camouflage," Parrott says.

"They come in like gangbusters in our school districts and get a couple board members hyped up -- who knows behind the scenes what they offer -- and then give you a big PR spiel and say your kids' test scores are going to go up because the kids in the alternative school won't be part of your school. You have to be very smart to see through the glitter that they bring and the PR and the fancy tape and the name-dropping." In Houston, CEP test scores are attached to the student's home school.

Test scores are the new issue in Pasadena's CEP, which has 252 students enrolled. Children are sent there for 180 days, although they can be released after a 120-day review -- only if the home school agrees to take them back. There were CEP problems this year with administration of the TAAS. "Some of the tests were not recorded properly," says district spokesperson Kirk Lewis. "So it created some paperwork issues for us, getting it all cleaned up to make sure we had the right students with the right tests, matching them up and getting them accounted for."

Lewis says that in some CEP cases, the wrong test was given to the wrong child. There were instances of children taking the test for the wrong grade level, and some tests were "temporarily misplaced." "When we went to pick them up, they were not with our stack, and we had to search to find them," Lewis says. Two tests are still missing; since PISD received some HISD tests, Lewis thinks his students' exams were sent to the wrong district.

Despite the fact that last year the Press reported that PISD had issues with report cards and ungraded exams (see "Learning Curve," by Wendy Grossman, October 5), that district still plans to renew the yearly contract. But because of past errors, Pasadena monitored CEP more closely this year, Lewis says. "We've just been watching them," he says.

Gordon Anderson is the top CEP representative in Houston, a man with an enthusiastic, earnest manner and a crippling handshake. His business card doesn't carry a title, but he's the person everyone directs the news media to when CEP questions arise. His oft-stated declarations of concern, love and hope for students at CEP are matched in frequency by his "We could be better" refrains when more troubling subjects are introduced. He sees far more good than bad at CEP, though, citing statistics showing academic improvement and an impressive number of students who ask to stay at CEP beyond their mandated term.

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