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.

He said more than half of the kids there did want to get rehabilitated, get straight and return to their home school. But he doesn't feel CEP did well by those kids because, he said, "they were getting absolutely zero education."

Another teacher, the one who stayed with CEP for so long, saw changes and feels CEP did some good, especially with students caught up in gang violence at their home schools who felt CEP was safer.

Many of the students sent to CEP, though, he said, just spent time learning more bad behaviors. If classes had been held to eight to ten kids, he said, he thinks the students could have been helped more. But in classes of 30 kids, there were just too many behavior problems for teachers to be effective, he said.

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.

Ultimately, his heart was broken when the school seemed to step back from some of the gains it had made, when, he says, attendance figures once again became far more important than anything else.

CEP has its roster of stars, of kids who made it. HISD has its statistics and points to CEP as a more than acceptable solution.

Robert Kimball's numbers don't match all this self-congratulation. He went looking for kids and couldn't find them in HISD's own databanks. He matched anecdotal stories with stats with common sense and came up with a much more disturbing outcome than the one claimed by either the public school system or the private company that takes its most troubled kids.

In Anthony's case, his attorney says he went through a special-ed program at his middle school this summer that allowed him to move on to Sam Houston High School. In late September, just shy of two months into the school year, he was still enrolled there, according to HISD records.

There are victories even if they are of the moment. It will be interesting to see who gets the credit in Anthony's case.

margaret.downing@houstonpress.com 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.

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, 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.

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