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?

The subsequent tour shows off empty halls with murals of happy students wearing caps and gowns. Beth Bircher, a former teacher in the local public schools, is the head of orientation. On arrival, she says, she tells students it doesn't matter what they did in the past, this is the place they can get back on track. She wants to see students working, nice and quiet. There are incentives for good behavior: games every other week, pizza, inclusion in the honors group (based on behavior, not grades).

Carolyn Taylor runs the Ninth Grade Initiative program at CEP, another delegation of responsibilities from HISD. The district won't know till sometime this summer whether the program designed to help at-risk ninth-graders -- it is funded by the Texas Education Agency and in operation at ten campuses -- will be renewed for next year.

Possessed of a calm, friendly, quietly forceful manner, Taylor says education is her second career. Previously, she spent 22 years in law enforcement as a deputy sheriff in Franklin County in Columbus, Missouri. She focuses on social skills as well as academics. And, as she puts it, students "know Ms. Taylor doesn't play."

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 the room labeled Girls In School Suspension, a male student sleeps at his desk throughout the time the Press reporters spend in his class (the room's teacher calls him "our exception"). Anderson kneels down next to an 11-year-old boy working at the far end of the room. He brings the boy over to the reporters, hugs him and says, "This is what this is all about." The boy makes a break for freedom. "You're the press? I want to talk to you. It's terrible what they do to children here," he says. Anderson pats him on the head and smiles -- weakly.

Buddy Streit was the head of all public education and senior vice president for development of the Brown Schools, a competitor of CEP's. With a background in juvenile justice and education, Streit says he spent four years with the Brown Schools, including their sites in Houston and Dallas, and got them to be more involved with at-risk kids in education.

He didn't know much about CEP until several CEP employees started asking him for jobs. Richardson accused him of stealing his teachers.

"I asked Randle Richardson if he was aware of what his people were saying," Streit says. Streit recounted what he'd been told, that false test scores were being recorded. Streit says Richardson told him he didn't give much credence to those allegations. Streit told Richardson he thought he ought to sit in on some exit interviews with his own people, and spend some time in his own schools.

"I'm trying to tell him as nicely as I can, 'You got a shitty company. This many people aren't making it up.' "

Streit left the Brown Schools last year and is starting his own alternative education company out of Tallahassee. There should be no problem with private companies offering services for at-risk kids "so long as the system has in place accountability mechanisms," he says. "You've got to hold all these parties to high standards and if there are problems, let's not pretend they are not there."

There is an argument to be made that instead of dealing with kids who have emotional problems -- kids whose parents have died or who have been diagnosed with depression or other mental illnesses that lead to bad behavior -- HISD ships them off to CEP.

Marshall McCardell has a long history of seeking counseling and acting out in school. He was sent to CEP for disrupting class at Clifton Middle School and has been there since last October. He is 11 years old.

On a recent Monday, the school nurse contacted Marshall's grandmother, saying Marshall had hit his head and he had a bad headache and someone needed to come pick him up. Marshall's grandmother called her daughter, Lynette Jackson, at work, and Lynette immediately called the school and headed over. "By the time I got there he had a big knot on his head and his eyes were sunken back in his head," she says.

What led to Marshall getting hurt remains a mystery.

"At first I was playing around. The teacher told me to do some work. When she left the classroom I went to sleep," Marshall says. When he woke up, he was lying on the floor of his classroom with a knot on his head.

From there accounts diverge. Either Marshall just fell to the floor from his sleeping position at his desk and clunked his head or -- as other students have told Marshall -- another student grabbed Marshall's head while he was sleeping and gave it a yank, causing him to fall to the floor. The teacher doesn't know because she was outside in the hall talking to another teacher, Marshall says.

Dizzy and disoriented, Marshall tried to rise and fell again. He decided to go back to sleep, but another student knew enough to say this was not safe. Marshall's friend told a teacher that Marshall needed to go to the nurse, but the teacher denied that request.

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