Million-Dollar Babies

Some CEP students have been locked in for years

"CEP has engaged in unscrupulous tactics to maintain students beyond their original assignments," Jones told Houston trustees. This is because, she said, letting students out of CEP is unprofitable.

In the 2000-2001 school year, HISD's contract called for CEP to enroll up to 2,500 students, for which HISD paid it $17.9 million a year. Student enrollment never approached those numbers. CEP needed the numbers up to justify the millions it was being given by HISD.

The push was on to meet the quota. HISD had to shuttle kids to CEP to get some sort of return on its investment. It didn't matter if the kid had been a truant or a drug dealer. One size fits all was the order of the day. Principals lost their discretionary powers and automatically sent kids to CEP. Last year, according to Browne, 2,856 HISD students spent at least a day at CEP.

After some outcry, chiefly from legislators involved in the House Public Education Committee who'd been visited by some irate Houston parents, the HISD administration cut the CEP contract amount last October by more than $2 million, while the number of guaranteed kids in the program was decreased to 1,600. Of those, 110 slots were set aside for a new category of short-term placements: students staying from 30 to 60 days. The just-approved contract remains at those levels.

The Dallas ISD went through a similar process but ultimately decided to jettison the program entirely. After signing a five-year, $10 million-a-year contract calling for CEP to house up to 1,500 students, DISD found itself objecting to the flat-fee agreement almost immediately when the number of kids going there hovered around the 300 mark. In 2001, after threatening to hold Dallas students out of CEP entirely, the new Dallas superintendent, Mike Moses, renegotiated a one-year, $6 million contract providing for up to 850 students.

In the end, DISD decided that didn't work either and bailed, Moses saying he thought DISD could offer a program just as good. DISD made the move even though it will have to spend $10 million to buy the building that CEP used.

Moses was able to make this change because he had the support of most of his school board members, who tended to blame a previous superintendent for the misstep. Although there has been a similar change of superintendent in Houston -- former superintendent Rod Paige is now U.S. secretary of education, and remains an ardent supporter of CEP -- Dr. Kaye Stripling is not working with a board opposed to CEP. She, herself, has supported CEP, saying it is necessary to ensure safety in the mainstream Houston schools.

Houston did take some other steps in response to the complaints about CEP. There is supposed to be more accountability and better monitoring of the CEP operation here by HISD. But that's about as far as it goes. As a result, Houston continues to greatly exceed the statewide averages on length of sentencing for the students it sends to an alternative facility.

Jacobs questions why HISD wants to continue with CEP, particularly when TEA data show that the longer a student is in a disciplinary alternative program, the worse his academics. He bases this on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills scores they're getting from alternative centers throughout the state.

It isn't just how long a student is in an alternative facility, Jacobs said. It's what is done with him while he's there. If there are certified teachers (most of the teachers at CEP are not) and students are focused and getting intensive instruction to help them catch up, then the program may work, he said.

In CEP's case, the private school provides the four core courses for high school students. This doesn't give them the electives required to graduate, though. Jacobs doesn't think most parents understand this, asking why a parent or a school district would want a child to stay someplace where he cannot complete his requirements for a diploma.

The majority of CEP students are not there for felony offenses, Jacobs said, but for simple code-of-conduct violations. "So you can't keep talking about 'I've got all these dangerous kids.' That's not the case."

The image the community has, though, the one perpetuated by its leaders, is that these students are really dangerous. "That's the rhetoric. The data does not prove out that rhetoric," Jacobs said.

In fact, statewide, between 75 percent and 85 percent of the students placed in disciplinary alternative education programs are there on a discretionary basis, rather than a criminal, mandatory one, Jacobs said.

Jacobs is in the process of developing a system to assess alternative education programs throughout the state. He wants to know, for instance, how many kids actually leave CEP and never go back to any other school. How many children never get promoted?

At the end of the assessment, Jacobs hopes he'll be able to say which alternative programs are succeeding and which are doing poorly in regards to preparing students for standardized testing. He'll be able to say which ones have disproportionate numbers of special ed and minority students. He wants better explanations of why so many discretionary students are going to disciplinary programs as opposed to other alternative programs. HISD has 12 alternative education programs and four disciplinary ones, spokeswoman Heather Browne said.

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