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?

On May 14 a requested interview with new acting principal Ken Thomas and a tour of the CEP Beechnut facility turn into a meeting with a small group of people including Anderson and Gayle Fallon. But Thomas, who was brought in abruptly from Nashville to replace principal Phillipa Young, is nowhere in sight. Anderson explains Thomas's absence by saying, "He's being principal. It's my assignment to visit with you."

Anderson says Young was moved out suddenly because CEP needed a community liaison. "She's very excited," he says. "There was a fresh enthusiasm in her voice. It was wonderful to see her out there." Asked why this was done right before the end of the school year, Anderson concedes, "This was prompted, to a fair degree, because of the criticism that the schools have been receiving." Thomas, normally assigned to operations and special projects in Nashville, will be replaced next fall by Ed LaSage, an assistant principal at Lanier Middle School who Anderson says is firm but kind.

Staff turnover remains a major problem at Houston's CEP. There have been several principals in the few years the program has been in operation here. Teachers come and go at an even higher rate.

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.

All the teachers have degrees, but few are certified. Anderson says that certification is "a wonderful thing," but if someone has the heart to work with these kids then they don't necessarily need to be certified. At the same time he readily agrees that the school lacks teachers who are able to answer higher-level questions in some subjects. "Math, that's an area we haven't figured out yet."

In response to subsequent Press questions, Richardson says CEP will be adding a staff recruiter to hire upper-level math and science teachers. Current staff will receive additional training in math and science, Anderson says. Better computer programs are being considered. And CEP is considering requiring all new hires to either enter an alternative certification plan or obtain temporary certification -- if this doesn't violate provisions of the union contact, Richardson says.

Anderson says teacher turnover is too high. Fallon says the pay "is not there" and that it's going to have to come up. The average salary of $29,000 is lower than what HISD teachers are paid, but she says there are better benefits.

Anderson also volunteered that original staff selection wasn't rigorous enough and CEP's new teacher training was inadequate.

The relationship of teachers to students at CEP is shaky, by most student/parent accounts. CEP students often say teachers shove and yell at them. Fallon discounts this, saying this is just part of "a new game" widespread throughout HISD in which students know that by making false accusations about teachers they can get them removed. Anderson says that sometimes a teacher will insert himself between two fighting students and end up touching one. Fallon agrees. "Ultimately, you stop a fight physically. When I taught, I used to take the smallest one and throw 'em somewhere," she says. "If a teacher manhandles a kid it's an automatic termination. We haven't had one fired."

Richardson agrees. He says CPS and HPD have yet to confirm any such allegations of student abuse, which are taken seriously by CEP.

Richardson also discounts reports of fighting among students and says no allegations have been substantiated about teachers standing by during student fights.

CEP tries to eliminate fights among students by keeping the kids out of hallways and bathrooms and by eliminating cafeterias. Students eat lunch in their rooms. "We tried to build in predictability, continuity and stability," Anderson says. "It's kind of like an old-fashioned one-room school."

Out of every 100 kids in HISD, CEP takes two students, Anderson says, and of these, 10 percent are placed in special ed. Anderson says CEP is not a warehouse and that he cares about all the students there. "They're still children on the inside, and I'm not gonna let them get pushed out on the street."

Despite the regimentation, kids at CEP can still get in trouble and be sent to in-school suspension or expelled. Anderson says they follow up on truancy very strongly because CEP doesn't get paid if the kids aren't there. (Richardson says there is a financial penalty if CEP doesn't maintain 80 percent attendance.) As a result, attendance at CEP is "10 to 15 percent higher than at their home school," Anderson says.

But on another morning prior to this date -- as a Press writer parked her butt in a potted plant out in the CEP parking lot, in a very long and unsuccessful wait to get inside -- kids straggled in throughout the morning. Asked about this, Anderson sighs, saying: "Some do drift in, and we try to reach the parents. These kids have had bad experiences in school for whatever reason. I think we're making a good, energetic effort to get them here.

"Do some of them straggle in? Yes. Do we feel confident we're doing everything we can? No." Fallon points out that some of the kids coming in late were as a result of their parents being called to bring in their kids.

Much of CEP's literature promotes its self-paced policy of putting students in front of computers for most of the day. They are both taught and tested by these computers, which, company CEO Richardson has proudly said, cannot be accused of falsifying scores. But on this day in May, Anderson says he'd like to see CEP become less computer-driven, instead offering more direct interaction with teachers.

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