Opt In, Opt Out

HISD continues to send students to CEP. Whether they go there, stay there or return successfully to their home school is anyone's guess.

Anthony was sentenced to alternative school at Community Education Partners, and there was nothing his mother or his lawyer could do about it. He had violated the student code of conduct regarding "dress code, defiance." Mom and the lawyer weren't disputing that Anthony had not behaved well, but they were hoping allowances would be made for the fact that Anthony probably should be in special education. And as offenses go, his profanity, belligerence and sleeping in class weren't on the level of weapons, drugs or serious bodily injury.

His actions, they said, were a result of his disability, a combination of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and depression.

That argument went absolutely nowhere in a series of meetings with Burbank Middle School officials. School officials pointed out that Anthony had never been certified as a special ed student. The insinuation was clear that this was probably just a desperate measure to avoid his rightful punishment. When the lawyer asked for special ed testing before Anthony was moved to CEP, this was rejected. His mother, Connie Ruiz, formally requested special-ed testing in May 2005, but that didn't happen.

Attendance is crucial to the financial well-being of CEP.
Keri Rosebraugh
Attendance is crucial to the financial well-being of CEP.
Teachers say CEP computers didn't last long; one remembers how keyboards became weapons.
Keri Rosebraugh
Teachers say CEP computers didn't last long; one remembers how keyboards became weapons.

HISD was adamant. Anthony would have to go to one of the alternative schools founded and operated by Nashville-based Community Education Partners. His sentence was 180 days, the equivalent of an entire school year. Since 1997, HISD has been contracting out its problems to CEP and saying it has everyone's best interests at heart.

There were the usual grief stages of denial. The mother didn't want him in CEP, but home schooling would be a tough job, considering that Anthony had failed fourth and eighth grades and was looking to fail again.

So he went off to CEP, where he was scanned each day to get in, plunked in front of a computer and told to get with it. His attorney, Barbara Ashley, filed appeal after appeal, but nothing moved forward much.

It took months. Finally, in May 2006 an HISD mental health services administrator agreed he should be tested. And shazaam, turns out Anthony does have problems that not only entitle him to special-ed services but that should have been considered when weighing any punishments. He would be returned to his home school.

Jubilation all round. Anthony could stop going to CEP.

As it turns out, he'd decided that on his own months ago. He'd walk toward the bus stop under his mother's watchful eye. He just wouldn't get on, wouldn't go to CEP. He checked himself out, unofficially to be sure, but definitely.

HISD thought he was at CEP, and CEP apparently didn't know where he was. Anthony took full advantage of the giant gap of information between the two and opted out.

Robert Kimball doesn't know Anthony, but he does know numbers. The former assistant principal at Sharpstown High School, who was the first to sound the alarm about that school's bogus dropout figures scandal in 2003, says CEP is a dropout factory that helps almost no one. And he backs up his claim with numbers, numbers he got from HISD itself through repeated Texas Open Records Act requests.

For months now, the University of Houston-Clear Lake professor and retired Army lieutenant colonel has been studying the dropout issue in middle and high schools. In regards to CEP, he focused on a group of 180 HISD students enrolled there in March 2004. He checked their status in March 2006 and September 2006. He found that 90 percent of the high schoolers were not in any HISD high school by September 11, 2006 and that less than 1 percent of the group had graduated. The missing kids were not still in CEP either, he says.

Sixty percent of the middle school students couldn't be found in any HISD high school two years later, he says.

Now, it could be that these students just enrolled in another district, or are happily attending school in another country. Kimball believes that is just wishful thinking. His take: "It is more likely that all these highly at-risk students just dropped out."

CEP started in Houston with all sorts of bright promises. It has two campuses here, one on Beechnut and one on Ferndale. It also opened up schools in Atlanta, Orlando and Philadelphia, where this year's contract totals $28.1 million. In a recent report in the Philadelphia School Notebook (www.thenotebook.org/editions/2006/fall/cep.htm), reporter Dale Mezzacappa, using data from the Philadelphia school district and a study done by Temple University, found that of the more than 10,000 students directed to CEP there since 2000, about 500 graduated from high school. The story noted that while data is available on the success stories, no comprehensive reports are available on the vast majority who don't go back to their home schools and graduate.

Not all the schools CEP has opened have stayed that way. It used to operate an alternative program for the Dallas ISD, but a new superintendent canceled it in 2002 after he and the school board agreed it was a bad deal. Locally, the Pasadena ISD used CEP's services, but also later dropped its contract.

Since its arrival in Houston, CEP has attracted criticism from parents, students and some educators for its heavy reliance on computer programs, its number of uncertified teachers and the HISD habit of assigning kids to CEP for 180 days (the equivalent of an entire school year). For years there have been consistent reports from students and teachers that fighting is a normal part of the CEP school day.

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