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

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."

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.

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, Philadelphia and Orlando. Not all the schools it 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, 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.

CEP also has had strong supporters: most notably, former HISD Superintendent and former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Houston Federation of Teachers union president Gayle Fallon. Fallon has said repeatedly that there's a need to get the worst of the misbehaving students out of the regular classrooms so other students can learn and so that students and teachers can work in a safe environment. On September 20, both she and Sharon Baker, principal of CEP's Beechnut campus, testified before the state Senate Committee on Education in support of CEP. The principal said that 86 percent of the students who went to CEP returned to their high schools and graduated. CEP has testimonials on file from kids and their parents who say their lives were turned around after going there.

Even teachers who dislike CEP say that just cutting off ties with it won't work; HISD has nothing with which to replace it.

Students get to CEP when they have committed crimes considered too onerous to allow them to stay in their regular school. The idea is that rather than abandoning students who previously would have been tossed out on the streets, the district is caring for them by giving them a second chance.

Finding out what happens at CEP is difficult, especially if you have been critical of it in the past as this paper has. It is not a public entity; it is a private business, and if it doesn't want to answer questions, no one can compel it to. HISD and CEP were each sent a list of questions about the operations at the CEP schools. HISD spokesman Terry Abbott picked out a few questions to answer but said the rest were the responsibility of CEP. He did, however, ask CEP to answer the questions sent it. This occurred after initial calls and a fax to company CEO Randle Richardson at his Nashville office went unanswered.

The student body at both CEP campuses is about 60 percent Hispanic, 35 percent African American, 4 percent white and 1 percent Asian American. Abbott points out that the ethnic breakdown almost exactly mirrors that of the district as a whole. The male to female ratio is 70-30.

According to statistics on file with the Texas Education Agency, both CEP schools in Houston have been a rousing success. Beechnut had an attendance rate of 84 percent in 20034 and 86.9 percent in 20023. The annual dropout rate for grades 7-12 was a startling 0 percent in 20034 and 0.7 percent the year before. What makes this more surprising is that these are kids who already have established problems attending class in their home schools; many of them landed at CEP because of their inability to adhere to the state's truancy laws. The report also shows that 100 percent continued high school and that the class of 2004 had a 100 percent completion rate. Ferndale had similar figures.

When asked if these statistics were, in fact, accurate, HISD spokesman Terry Abbott said, "Yes, remember CEP has mostly middle school kids, not high school kids, so the dropout rate would be lower than the district average." The district average as reported to TEA is 2.2 percent, a figure greatly suspect in its own right, given the serious drop-off in the number of students between the ninth and 12th grades, as well as the regular sweeps through the neighborhoods that Superintendent Abe Saavedra makes, appealing to students to return to school.

CEP has its own set of numbers for Houston. Of the 3,887 students CEP served last year, it says:

1,145 (29 percent) returned to CEP. These students were assigned in the second semester and will be returning to their home schools this year;

1,721 (44 percent) returned to HISD;

897 (23 percent) either graduated or continued their education outside of the district in charter schools, private schools or other school districts;

124 (3 percent), whereabouts unknown.

But Kimball, in his study of this CEP subgroup, comes up with some very different results than either CEP, HISD or the TEA. He has spent months gathering and analyzing public information he requested from HISD.

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