Backing Off

HISD cuts $2 million from CEP's lucrative deal and adds more controls.

After continual criticism that the Houston Independent School District's contract with Community Education Partners is unfair, changes are finally under way. The once rock-hard $17.9 million agreement -- staunchly defended by both HISD and CEP -- was amended late last month and slashed by more than $2 million.

Community Education Partners operates two private, for-profit alternative schools in Houston. They are designed to get students with behavioral problems out of regular classrooms, provide them with individualized attention and use self-paced computer programs so they can catch up academically with their peers.

Not everyone has been happy with the results. This fall, Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Mike Moses threatened to stop sending students to CEP if the company didn't change its five-year, $50 million contract. As a result, about $4 million was cut from the DISD agreement.

Company CEO Randle Richardson referred all questions to HISD.

HISD's new superintendent, Kaye Stripling, said via e-mail that the CEP contract was one of the things she believed needed to be changed or updated: "The quality of service needed to be improved."

The new HISD contract with CEP calls for a minimum enrollment of 1,600 students -- 900 fewer than in previous years. Under the old contract, HISD paid the company on the basis of a projected enrollment of 2,500, although only about half that number were sent to those alternative schools -- so HISD shelled out $2 million for nonexistent students.

"The change was made so the district could be financially prudent," says HISD spokeswoman Heather Browne. "There were some discrepancies."

Of that reduced minimum enrollment, 110 slots -- the size of one CEP "learning community" -- are set aside for a new category of short-term placements, students staying from 30 to 60 days.

That change stems from a flood of protests among parents of CEP students to the state legislature. They condemned the past policy that set mandatory sentences of 180 days for all CEP referrals. Regardless of the offense -- whether it was being tardy too many times, having a joint in a backpack or assaulting a teacher -- the agreement required students to stay at CEP for the equivalent of an entire school year.

Two families sued the district this year over the contract's one-size-fits-all approach to punishment. Stripling signed a settlement agreement allowing two boys to return to their home school. The district also had to pay the families $16,000 for their legal expenses.

The revised contract also calls for the school board to name a representative to formally review students' progress within 120 days of placement. "We didn't feel it was happening as often as it should have been happening," Browne says. "This is necessary for us. It's a state law."

According to the contract, there will be informal reviews of students' grades and class work as well as a formal review to draw up graduation plans. Administrators will evaluate a child's progress and decide if the student needs to stay at CEP, be moved to a nondisciplinary alternative education program or sent back to the home school.

The contract also calls for "modifying" CEP's assessment process when a student is referred to the alternative school. The company's computer program didn't seem to accurately assess students' grade levels, says Bill McCluskey, HISD's executive director for the alternative district office.

If a sixth-grader missed one question on the third-grade level but got all of the questions right on the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade levels, CEP would classify him as being on the third-grade level, because that was the first question he missed. "We felt that might not be indicative of what his real working levels are," McCluskey says. "We're asking if the computer can zero in and designate where he has multiple mistakes instead of where the first mistake is." McCluskey says that CEP's data didn't correspond with Texas Assessment of Academic Skills and Stanford 9 achievement test scores. Critics have sharply questioned the accuracy of CEP's testing methods, while HISD has defended CEP's claims that it can raise a student two grade levels in one full academic year. The new contract aims to establish required levels of growth in reading and math.

"Our goal is to make sure first and foremost that the students who are referred to CEP get the academic service that they need and that they deserve," says Browne. "They got it in the past, and they will continue to get it -- this contract will not change that."

At the August school board meeting, members voted to let Stripling negotiate the contract without board review. Board member Larry Marshall, who revealed in a deposition that he receives $72,000 yearly from CEP as a company consultant, has a conflict of interest and did not participate in the vote, Browne says.

[For more information on CEP controversies, see "Hail to the Chiefs," by Margaret Downing, October 25, "Letting Go," by Downing, August 23; "Learning How to Survive (at) CEP," by Downing and Wendy Grossman, May 31; "180 Days in the Hole," by Downing, April 19; "The Learning Curve," by Grossman, October 5, 2000, and "Making (Up) the Grade," by Grossman, April 6, 2000.]

 
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