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.
A sleeping student meets two of the school's three criteria: He's there and he's not causing problems. Whether he's learning is anyone's guess.
Keri Rosebraugh
A sleeping student meets two of the school's three criteria: He's there and he's not causing problems. Whether he's learning is anyone's guess.

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.

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.

The students in the sample Kimball selected were all the students assigned to CEP's Beechnut location from schools in the West District. He looked at retention rates and graduation results. Highlights of his findings:

Of the 93 high school students (38 from Sharpstown, 21 from Westside and 34 from Lee) at the Beechnut location, only four had graduated from HISD by March 2006. By September, that had moved to five graduates, with another four still enrolled. That means: Ninety percent of this sample group of students were no longer students in HISD two years after being enrolled in CEP.

Of the 87 middle school students (six from Grady, 18 from Long, 24 from Paul Revere, seven from Westbriar and 32 from Sharpstown Middle) enrolled in CEP in the same sample, only 34 students (40 percent) of them were still on the active list in HISD by September 11. Five of those students were not on the active list as of March, but were reported to have re-enrolled between March and September.

Kimball also found that of the West Side students he studied, as of March, six had been at CEP since 2002. In September only one of those six was enrolled in HISD. Ninety-five had been enrolled in CEP since 2003, and 79 in 2004. The terms of the contract states students are to be reviewed for possible return to their home schools after 120 days, but many of the students are staying at CEP much longer, Kimball says.

Kimball says there is evidence that when students learn they are assigned to CEP, they drop out before ever reporting, or they report to the school as Anthony did and then drop out after just a few days. Assignment to CEP comes with its own special stigma, he says. Students feel like, and sometimes say they are treated like, ex cons upon their return to the home school. So they opt out instead.

On October 27, 2005, Kimball sent a letter to all HISD school board members tagging CEP schools as "dropout factories." He mentioned in this letter that he had discussed this with Superintendent Abe Saavedra on October 14, 2005.

In his letter, Kimball stated: "An assignment to CEP is often the turning point when students decide to drop out. CEP has a large number of no-shows and it is because they drop outÉ

"The bottom line is that almost every student who enters CEP eventually drops out of school," Kimball wrote.

He went on to say that he recommended to Saavedra that HISD determine how many of the students directed to CEP actually ever graduate from HISD, predicting that this number would be fewer than 30 out of each year's graduating classes at schools across the district. He called for a cost-benefit analysis of the district's spending on its CEP contract, then $16 million, with that kind of result.

A year later, and it's apparent that the arguments Kimball made carried little weight. On June 29 of this year, the board not only authorized Saavedra to negotiate another agreement with CEP, it gave CEP a raise from $16 million to $17 million. So as Kimball sees it, HISD is paying more as retention and graduation rates at CEP decline.

Kimball was scheduled to speak before the Texas Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, October 4 and present his research and report. He stresses that he is doing this as "a concerned citizen and taxpayer."


CEP offers testimonials complete with full color photos. There's Isaias, who moved here from war-torn El Salvador with his family, then lost his father right before high school and went astray. A stay at CEP not only led him to complete high school -- he now studies at Houston Community College and is part of the CEP instructional team.

Maira had failed the ninth grade and was about to do it again. Sent to CEP, she became pregnant shortly thereafter, but returned to CEP after giving birth. She was able to graduate from high school and now works at the Harris County Constable's Office while taking computer courses on the side.

Melissa was 18 years old and still in the ninth grade at her home school when she came to CEP. With CEP's help, she was able to graduate from high school and is now working and planning to go to college.

There are other stories like this, all exceptional, all inspiring. These are kids who went to CEP and found something there and in themselves that enabled them to turn around their lives.

Besides the inspiring stories, CEP says it has test scores showing its students are able to about double their scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, without regard to the length of stay they have at CEP.

But two educators who talked with the Press, each of whom has worked at CEP and who are now employed as teachers in local public school districts, did not paint as rosy a picture. Most of their CEP students, they said, were not as successful. Neither one wanted their name used in this story, fearing complications in their present jobs.

The first teacher worked there in one of the early years, at Ferndale for one semester and Beechnut the other. He left, he said, because "It was just so horrid. There's absolutely no education going on."

He described a classroom with too many kids, where books remained stacked on desks and students were handed worksheets and pointed at a computer. "And they're just going to teach themselves," he laughed. "These students didn't succeed at their home school, so what makes you think all of a suddenÉyou're going to teach yourself calculus and biophysics and do well." Teachers graded all subjects at all grade levels, regardless of what their teaching specialty was.

This teacher said that with 32 students in a class turning papers in constantly, teachers were hard-pressed to keep up. "We're constantly classroom managing because we're worried about if somebody's going to bust somebody's head open with a keyboard. 'Cause it happens. Quite frequently. So we're more like taskmasters."

One result was fake grades, he said. Teachers would give the students they liked 100s and the others zeroes. "And the ones that have negative behavior, they'll be there forever."

Students knew there were no consequences for negative behavior other than a longer stay, he said, something that was very frustrating to the teachers. "The kids know that they're not going anywhere. Where are you going to send them? They're already at CEP."

In fact, when asked about what would lead to expulsion, be it drugs or fighting, CEP wrote that in following the HISD Code of Conduct, if a drug offense reached Level V (the top level), then a student would be expelled.

"In the case of fighting, it is highly unlikely that a student would be expelled," CEP wrote. Attendance is too important to CEP -- that's how it makes its money, both teachers said. In regular classrooms, when a student acted up, the teacher showed him the door. This often only made matters worse at CEP, another teacher said.

Sending a student out of the room brought him into the general commons area, where all the other classes could see him, according to this second teacher. Often this would just ignite more widespread bad behavior.

This second teacher, who stayed with CEP for seven years, said he saw improvements. The school discarded some of its early teaching approaches, such as leaving kids to their own self-paced devices even if they were failing in school. CEP began holding students to a higher behavior standard, with consequences if that wasn't met, he said.

The number of certified teachers improved. CEP now says that 89 percent of its teachers are certified and all the others are enrolled in a teacher-certification program.

Computers were moved into a separate room where students would take turns working with them, he says. Leaving eight to ten computers in each classroom had proved to be a mistake, he said. Most of them were destroyed.

It was all too successful, according to the teacher. More students were being returned to their home schools, and the census was down. This was not good for business. So they took several steps back, he said.

He left, he said, because he started seeing a lot of things going on there that would jeopardize his hard-won certification. He was abruptly switched from one class to another, eventually to a lower middle school grade level at which he hadn't taught in years. The changes were disruptive for the students and for himself, he said.

This longtime CEP teacher said he believes the basic problem with CEP is that as a business, it concentrates on the bottom line rather than on educating children.

"The biggest focus was on getting the kids to be here. We had the three Bs. Be Here. Behave. Be Learning." As long as they could get the kids there for the count, it was enough, he said.

Whereas for a while, when things improved, students were sent home for dress code violations or bounced if they brought drugs to school or got in a particularly bad fight, later many of these behaviors were overlooked, he said. If there was any suspension, he said, it was of the in-school variety so attendance could continue to be counted.

Other behaviors were excused as well.

"If a kid put his head down, if a kid went to sleep, well he's not causing problems," the teacher said.


Robert Kimball says there are two main reasons CEP students fail to graduate. There are no dropout-prevention programs at its two Houston schools, and there is no transitional program to ease the return to their home school.

CEP did successfully propose a credit recovery/dropout prevention program this year, saying it could do this for $6,500 per student instead of $9,995. This program, called "less intensive," would target non-disruptive students who are falling far behind their grade level. According to CEP's statistics, in the 20045 school year, of the 719 students referred to CEP, 407, or 57 percent, were over-age. Most of the over-age students were stuck in the ninth grade -- 292 of them. The ninth grade is the traditional drop-out point for many students.

The program would be housed at the Beechnut Street address and offer a flexible schedule, noting that many of these students "have work and family responsibilities that do not allow them to attend classes on a traditional schedule." It would concentrate on math, English, science and social studies, with on-line preparation for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

HISD spokesman Terry Abbott wrote in an e-mail that the decision to add the credit recovery program was based upon its cost, as well as that CEP has demonstrated success working with students to catch them up in the credits they need for graduation in a special accelerated program.

Although Abbott has said there are no plans for a transitional program to ease the way back from CEP into the home school, there has been discussion of the need for this by HISD educators. Nearby Alief Independent School District has installed a transition program in its own alternative school, which allows students considered ready for a home school return to ease in on a partial-class-load basis before returning to all their regular classes.

Alief, like many other local districts, tends to send its students to alternative school for much shorter stays than are the norm at CEP.

CEP, which a few years ago set aside 110 slots for shorter sentences, says that it is up to the individual school district to determine the length of stay. Standard placements, it says, range from 30 to 180 days, with 102 being the average.


One teacher described his year at CEP in nothing but dismal terms. "All we were doing as teachers was being a police officer without badges, trying to stop fights and trying to stop food fights and riots all day."

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.

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.

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, 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.

The students in the sample Kimball selected were all the students assigned to CEP's Beechnut location from schools in the West District. He looked at retention rate and graduation results. Highlights of his findings:

Of the 93 high school students (38 from Sharpstown, 21 from Westside and 34 from Lee) at the Beechnut location, only four had graduated from HISD by March 2006. By September, that had moved to five graduates, with another four still enrolled. That means: Ninety percent of this sample group of students were no longer students in HISD two years after being enrolled in CEP.

Of the 87 middle school students (six from Grady, 18 from Long, 24 from Paul Revere, seven from Westbriar and 32 from Sharpstown Middle) enrolled in CEP in the same sample, only 34 students (40 percent) of them were still on the active list in HISD by September 11. Five of those students were not on the active list as of March, but were reported to have re-enrolled between March and September.

Kimball also found that of the West Side students he studied, as of March, six had been at CEP since 2002. In September only one of those six was enrolled in HISD. Ninety-five had been enrolled in CEP since 2003, and 79 in 2004. The terms of the contract states students are to be reviewed for possible return to their home schools after 120 days, but many of the students are staying at CEP much longer, Kimball says.

Kimball says there is evidence that when students learn they are assigned to CEP, they drop out before ever reporting, or they report to the school as Anthony did and then drop out after just a few days. Assignment to CEP comes with its own special stigma, he says. Students feel like, and sometimes say they are treated like, ex cons upon their return to the home school. So they opt out instead.

On October 27, 2005, Kimball sent a letter to all HISD school board members tagging CEP schools as "dropout factories." He mentioned in this letter that he had discussed this with Superintendent Abe Saavedra on October 14, 2005.

In his letter, Kimball stated: "An assignment to CEP is often the turning point when students decide to drop out. CEP has a large number of no-shows and it is because they drop outÉ

"The bottom line is that almost every student who enters CEP eventually drops out of school," Kimball wrote.

He went on to say that he recommended to Saavedra that HISD determine how many of the students directed to CEP actually ever graduate from HISD, predicting that this number would be fewer than 30 out of each year's graduating classes at schools across the district. He called for a cost-benefit analysis of the district's spending on its CEP contract, then $16 million, with that kind of result.

A year later, and it's apparent that the arguments Kimball made carried little weight. On June 29 of this year, the board not only authorized Saavedra to negotiate another agreement with CEP, it gave CEP a raise from $16 million to $17 million. So as Kimball sees it, HISD is paying more as retention and graduation rates at CEP decline.

Kimball was scheduled to speak before the Texas Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, October 4 and present his research and report. He stresses that he is doing this as "a concerned citizen and taxpayer."


CEP offers testimonials complete with full color photos. There's Isaias, who moved here from war-torn El Salvador with his family, then lost his father right before high school and went astray. A stay at CEP not only led him to complete high school -- he now studies at Houston Community College and is part of the CEP instructional team.

Maira had failed the ninth grade and was about to do it again. Sent to CEP, she became pregnant shortly thereafter, but returned to CEP after giving birth. She was able to graduate from high school and now works at the Harris County Constable's Office while taking computer courses on the side.

Melissa was 18 years old and still in the ninth grade at her home school when she came to CEP. With CEP's help, she was able to graduate from high school and is now working and planning to go to college.

There are other stories like this, all exceptional, all inspiring. These are kids who went to CEP and found something there and in themselves that enabled them to turn around their lives.

Besides the inspiring stories, CEP says it has test scores showing its students are able to about double their scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, without regard to the length of stay they have at CEP.

But two educators who talked with the Press, each of whom has worked at CEP and who are now employed as teachers in local public school districts, did not paint as rosy a picture. Most of their CEP students, they said, were not as successful. Neither one wanted their name used in this story, fearing complications in their present jobs.

The first teacher worked there in one of the early years, at Ferndale for one semester and Beechnut the other. He left, he said, because "It was just so horrid. There's absolutely no education going on."

He described a classroom with too many kids, where books remained stacked on desks and students were handed worksheets and pointed at a computer. "And they're just going to teach themselves," he laughed. "These students didn't succeed at their home school, so what makes you think all of a suddenÉyou're going to teach yourself calculus and biophysics and do well." Teachers graded all subjects at all grade levels, regardless of what their teaching specialty was.

This teacher said that with 32 students in a class turning papers in constantly, teachers were hard-pressed to keep up. "We're constantly classroom managing because we're worried about if somebody's going to bust somebody's head open with a keyboard. 'Cause it happens. Quite frequently. So we're more like taskmasters."

One result was fake grades, he said. Teachers would give the students they liked 100s and the others zeroes. "And the ones that have negative behavior, they'll be there forever."

Students knew there were no consequences for negative behavior other than a longer stay, he said, something that was very frustrating to the teachers. "The kids know that they're not going anywhere. Where are you going to send them? They're already at CEP."

In fact, when asked about what would lead to expulsion, be it drugs or fighting, CEP wrote that in following the HISD Code of Conduct, if a drug offense reached Level V (the top level), then a student would be expelled.

"In the case of fighting, it is highly unlikely that a student would be expelled," CEP wrote. Attendance was too important to CEP -- that's how it made its money, both teachers said. In regular classrooms, when a student acted up, the teacher showed him the door. This often only made matters worse at CEP, another teacher said.

Sending a student out of the room brought him into the general commons area, where all the other classes could see him, according to this second teacher. Often this would just ignite more widespread bad behavior.

This second teacher, who stayed with CEP for seven years, said he saw improvements. The school discarded some of its early teaching approaches, such as leaving kids to their own self-paced devices even if they were failing in school. CEP began holding students to a higher behavior standard, with consequences if that wasn't met, he said.

The number of certified teachers improved. CEP now says that 89 percent of its teachers are certified and all the others are enrolled in a teacher-certification program.

Computers were moved into a separate room where students would take turns working with them, he says. Leaving eight to ten computers in each classroom had proved to be a mistake, he said. Most of them were destroyed.

It was all too successful, according to the teacher. More students were being returned to their home schools, and the census was down. This was not good for business. So they took several steps back, he said.

He left, he said, because he started seeing a lot of things going on there that would jeopardize his hard-won certification. He was abruptly switched from one class to another, eventually to a lower middle school grade level at which he hadn't taught in years. The changes were disruptive for the students and for himself, he said.

This longtime CEP teacher said he believes the basic problem with CEP is that as a business, it concentrates on the bottom line rather than on educating children.

"The biggest focus was on getting the kids to be here. We had the three Bs. Be Here. Behave. Be Learning." As long as they could get the kids there for the count, it was enough, he said.

Whereas for a while, when things improved, students were sent home for dress code violations or bounced if they brought drugs to school or got in a particularly bad fight, later many of these behaviors were overlooked, he said. If there was any suspension, he said, it was of the in-school variety so attendance could continue to be counted.

Other behaviors were excused as well.

"If a kid put his head down, if a kid went to sleep, well he's not causing problems," the teacher said.


Robert Kimball says there are two main reasons CEP students fail to graduate. There are no dropout-prevention programs at its two Houston schools, and there is no transitional program to ease the return to their home school.

CEP did successfully propose a credit recovery/dropout prevention program this year, saying it could do this for $6,500 per student instead of $9,995. This program, called "less intensive," would target non-disruptive students who are falling far behind their grade level. According to CEP's statistics, in the 20045 school year, of the 719 students referred to CEP, 407, or 57 percent, were over-age. Most of the over-age students were stuck in the ninth grade -- 292 of them. The ninth grade is the traditional drop-out point for many students.

The program would be housed at the Beechnut Street address and offer a flexible schedule, noting that many of these students "have work and family responsibilities that do not allow them to attend classes on a traditional schedule." It would concentrate on math, English, science and social studies, with on-line preparation for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

HISD spokesman Terry Abbott wrote in an e-mail that the decision to add the credit recovery program was based upon its cost, as well as that CEP has demonstrated success working with students to catch them up in the credits they need for graduation in a special accelerated program.

Although Abbott has said there are no plans for a transitional program to ease the way back from CEP into the home school, there has been discussion of the need for this by HISD educators. Nearby Alief Independent School District has installed a transition program in its own alternative school, which allows students considered ready for a home school return to ease in on a partial-class-load basis before returning to all their regular classes.

Alief, like many other local districts, tends to send its students to alternative school for much shorter stays than are the norm at CEP.

CEP, which a few years ago set aside 110 slots for shorter sentences, says that it is up to the individual school district to determine the length of stay. Standard placements, it says, range from 30 to 180 days, with 102 being the average.


One teacher described his year at CEP in nothing but dismal terms. "All we were doing as teachers was being a police officer without badges, trying to stop fights and trying to stop food fights and riots all day."

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.

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

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