Million-Dollar Babies

Some CEP students have been locked in for years

The Houston Independent School District has been keeping children in the alternative schools run by a private company months, even years, after they should have been returned to their home schools, according to a Texas Education Agency investigation.

They have been retained in the program operated by Community Education Partners long past the end of the school year, far beyond their supposed 180-day mandatory sentences. The district pays more than $15.5 million a year to CEP to send students to this program.

Many of the students were first assigned to CEP in the 1999-2000 school year "and they are still of spring 2002 without any record of any further violations," Billy G. Jacobs, senior director of the TEA's Safe Schools Division, wrote the district June 6.

Brenda Jones keeps dogging CEP.
Deron Neblett
Brenda Jones keeps dogging CEP.

According to HISD spokeswoman Heather Browne, only a small number of students have been at CEP three years.

On February 20, the TEA told HISD to remove "voluntary" students -- kids supposedly placed or retained there by their parents -- from the two CEP campuses and return them to their original classrooms. This did not happen. Instead, the students remained at the school, where they spend most of their days at computer terminals working on "self-paced" courses, with minimal interaction from teachers.

Although HISD claimed in its correspondence with the TEA that parents had re-enrolled students voluntarily at the alternative schools set up to handle chronic offenders, Jacobs said that the district "was unable to provide documentation to support their claims that parents had requested that their children remain" and in fact, could not produce any parent request forms.

Even if the parents had asked that their children stay at CEP, there was no HISD board policy in place to provide for such a volunteer placement, Jacobs said. In fact, in a December 20, 2001, letter, TEA general counsel David A. Anderson told John Taylor, HISD's federal and state compliance officer, that any district that wanted to allow voluntary extensions would have to amend its code of conduct.

"Also remember that any student removed to a DAEP [Disciplinary Alternative Education Program] may not be placed beyond the end of the school year," Anderson wrote, without findings that the student had committed serious behavior offenses. "I seriously doubt any student removed [from his home school] solely because of a voluntary parental request could be found to meet that standard."

In his June 6 letter, Jacobs wrote that the "TEA is requesting a written response concerning the failure of HISD and CEP to comply with state law and district policy within 20 working days." HISD is working on its reply.

On June 13, the Houston school board took up the issue. It was time to renew its contract with the Nashville-based firm that claims it can raise a student two grade levels in one full academic year.

Just two days before, the Dallas school board had voted not to renew its $6 million contract with CEP, saying it was a bad deal that hadn't worked out for the students or the taxpayers.

In Houston, parent Brenda Jones, a longtime foe of CEP, addressed the board. She urged board members to have the "guts" to cut the tie with CEP and develop alternative programs of its own.

One trustee responded. Esther Campos wanted to know about the voluntary part especially. Jones had her hopes up. Finally someone was listening -- a rare occurrence among Houston trustees who've rather steadfastly ignored reports of fighting and verbal and physical abuse of students at CEP. Campos said she was concerned that parents could choose to keep their kids at CEP. But it turns out her concern was that it would prevent other kids who might need to go to CEP from getting in.

Bob Stockwell, HISD's chief academic officer, said no problem, the CEP-HISD agreement has a mechanism to deal with extra space and to enroll extra children.

So they all voted to keep the contract, except for Larry Marshall, who abstained. He's the board member who is paid $72,000 annually for four days' work each month as a consultant for CEP.

The board discussed but did not vote on several proposed changes to the HISD student code of conduct for the 2002-2003 school year -- one of which will allow a parent to make a onetime request for an extended stay at CEP for a child. This is expected to be approved by the July school board meeting.

The TEA's Jacobs said he was disappointed to hear Houston is going ahead with the voluntary program. "This is not what a disciplinary program was set up to do. They were set up to stabilize a child's behavior and bring him up to grade level and get him back into the regular program."

Keeping students in a disciplinary alternative program longer, where they aren't supposed to socialize with their peers and where they don't have social functions, just keeps them in isolation, which doesn't help them adjust to society, he said.

"Students should be back in the mainstream," Jacobs said, "because that's what they must do eventually or they may as well just go to prison now."

Why would CEP want to hold on to kids past the already heavy-duty 180-day sentence? Isn't that proof that its programs don't work?

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