Kirk and Rayette Fulk are challenging the length of their son's sentence.
Kirk and Rayette Fulk are challenging the length of their son's sentence.
Margaret Downing

180 Days in the Hole

Drew Fulk should be sitting in his second-year German class at Bellaire High right now, perfecting his accent along with the rest of the Guten morgen Herr Weber crowd. But that's blown.

The sophomore should be meeting up with his pals, making plans for after school and the weekend. That's gone, too. No friends. No meets. Absolutely no partying.

In February, Drew and four others were caught at Bellaire High with what was alleged to be about three ounces of marijuana. Suspended for three days, allowed back to take his TAAS tests, Drew was then given a letter telling him he was out and being sent to HISD's alternative education facility. Appeals by his parents to Principal Bill Lawson and his superiors went nowhere.

Not dead, but certainly written off, Drew spends his weekdays getting fingerprinted, searched and surveilled as he plugs himself into a computer for hours on end. No, it's not jail. It's school, Community Educations Partners-style, with no fancy foreign languages like German, no froufrou electives and no lively classroom banter. It's what HISD touts as a wonderful last-chance option for schooling disruptive, troubled youth.

As HISD sees it, it's a win-win situation. The home school loses the bad guys, which makes those schools safer. CEP offers a structured environment, a chance to learn for low-performing students who often test out years behind their peers.

But not everyone is quite so convinced that CEP is the perfect solution. As its net has expanded, as HISD aims toward an ever growing number of students to be sent to CEP -- now at 2,500 minimum -- some students have been gathered up who aren't below grade level, who aren't disruptive, who are very upset (along with their parents) to find themselves facing a year in lockdown.

In its rush to make schools safe, in its attempt to keep taxpayers happy by saving building costs, HISD places children with this private corporation that promotes itself as being able to accelerate learning. Accelerate learning, as in move a 16-year-old from reading at the second-grade level to the fourth. The district pays CEP so much a day to take on these children and washes its hands of them.

Are there some really tough kids who should be in a secure facility instead of disrupting their home school, making education impossible or dangerous for everyone else? You bet. But there are others in there who might be your son or daughter, who've stumbled, screwed up, maybe with too many tardies, too many absences, been found in possession of small amounts of drugs.

Rayette and Kirk Fulk, an attorney, have no quarrel with HISD punishing Drew. They punished him themselves and have told the district repeatedly they are not challenging their son being sent to CEP. What they are challenging is the length of his sentence.

You see, there's no discretion left because of HISD's CEP contract. In every case, offenders are sentenced to 180 days -- the equivalent of an entire Texas public school year -- in mind-numbing hell. The district and CEP say that's the amount of time needed for these students to improve their behavior and academics. But these students are ringed by computers and technicians, not teachers. Since CEP is a private firm, according to Texas law, there doesn't have to be a single certified teacher in the lot. Also, because it's an off-campus disciplinary program, CEP is exempt from any requirement that the courses it offers would lead to high school graduation.

The good kids among them hope to make it to the honors group, a goal reached by virtue of good behavior rather than good grades. That group offers an escape from the number of fights plaguing the lower groups, fights that staff members often step away from, kids and parents say.

Many of the CEP assignees are kids who in any other Texas public school would be serving a few weeks in ISS (in-school suspension) or in an alternate facility. In Texas, the average stay is about 26 school days or about the equivalent of a six-week grading period. But because they're the beneficiaries of a ridiculous one-size-fits-all, $17.9 million HISD contract with CEP, they're in for the long term. HISD guarantees CEP a minimum enrollment of 2,500 students and has to pay for them whether they're there or not. Principals get regular reports on how many of their students are ending up at CEP -- and how many more slots they have available to fill.

It's pretty clear what the thrust of that message is.

Comparisons with other school districts aside, HISD's contract with CEP appears to fly in the face of its own student conduct code, which is based upon the state model. A student is supposed to be removed from his home school for a period extending beyond the end of the school year only if:

The student's presence in the regular classroom program or at the home school presents a danger of physical harm to the student on other individuals; or

The student has engaged in serious or persistent misbehavior that violates the district's Code of Student Conduct. Serious offenses are those that substantially disrupt or materially interfere with the orderly process in the classroom, HISD transportation, the school, or any school-related activity. Persistent shall be defined as chronic or repeated instances of Level II and higher misconduct.

It is hard to understand how a student who is caught on a first-time minor drug offense matches either of the qualifications that HISD itself sets as the standards for removal to CEP. Yet that is what the district is doing to meet its numbers.

There is supposed to be an appeals process, but parents say they are told by principals that there is no latitude, that CEP equals a mandatory 180-day sentence.

Billy Jacobs has been director of the Texas Education Agency's Safe School Division since July 1996. The TEA does not step in and tell a local district how long it can send its students to an alternative program, Jacobs says. He acknowledges, however, that Houston is on the outer edge of the punishment range and that increasingly, parents are complaining to the state about that.

Disruptive students should be removed, Jacobs says. But the point of "zero tolerance," which Jacobs says is frequently misunderstood, is to also get them refocused and then back into the mainstream as soon as possible. "This is contrary to what we see in CEP."

"If a student is somewhat disruptive or violating minor rules and nondisruptive, I can't justify that they should have the same amount of time" as a student who commits a more serious criminal act, Jacobs says.

In recent weeks, parents have become more vocal in their objections. Rebuffed by a united booster front from HISD administrators, educators and school board members, a group of parents traveled to Austin on March 27. To their amazement, they found a serious audience with the House Public Education Committee, whose chairman, Representative Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, openly questioned the contract. The committee called for an investigation.

Kaye Stripling, HISD interim superintendent, wrote Sadler on March 29 to respond to some of his questions. In the letter, she touted the program's worth, while conceding that "there are often circumstances where improvements are necessary." She goes on to say the district will be "examining its alternative programs … and applicable district policies for more opportunities for improvement."

In what appears to be a bit more of a break with the past, HISD just last week issued a terse statement saying that HISD will begin negotiations with CEP to "re-examine the terms" of its contract.

Even the company's CEO, Randle Richardson, in a conversation with the Houston Press from his Nashville office, says that in the case of students coming to CEP who are already performing at grade level, "the program probably ought to be reviewed to see how their behavior is going. The program was not contemplated for that type of student.

"I'll be the first to tell you that when you're at grade level and your behavior comes back in line, you should go back to your home school."

Every day Jose goes to the back door of the CEP school on Beechnut. "You go in, they start yelling at you. You take off your shoes." Shirts are pulled out, pockets too. He stands spread-eagled against the wall, getting patted down, including his groin, five days a week. He's 15. Then he goes to his pod.

Jose, not his real name, is Hispanic like most of the kids there. Unlike most of them, he's at grade level and has held a responsible job outside of school for years. He says the kids who want to work do work, and those who want to play, play. Horseplay is common, with kids jumping all over the place. As long as the kids are pretty quiet, there's no attempt to stop them.

"You're supposed to work on the computer until the day is over. Most of the kids work for 15 minutes," Jose says. There's no set lunchtime. Things are better now than during orientation when they often didn't eat until 3:30 p.m. Food is brought over from HISD. Now that they're eating earlier, the food is still warm some of the time.

The work is endless and not very challenging. There's always another computer program to move on to, Jose says, and most of it is far below his grade level. The textbook work is better, he says. They get gym two times a week. He's not allowed to take any books home.

He has no respect for the faculty, calls them corrupt. He says they can't answer questions, they don't do their jobs. The "teachers" have kids grade each other's work and the kids make up grades, handing out 95s and 100s right and left, he says. On a couple of questions on a computer test there were four multiple-choice answers -- but no question. When he brought that up to his pod leader, he was told to just guess an answer and hope it was the right one for the unknown question.

Jose was assigned to CEP after a first-time drug offense. He tries to stay out of trouble and keep to himself as much as possible. He talks about quitting school if he has to go to CEP next year. He says he knows when he turns 16 he can drop out. His mother says no way is that going to happen.

Randle Richardson clearly wants to make sure that his business weathers this storm. He denies previous reports of grade fixing at CEP's Houston schools. He says an earlier principal, for instance, didn't understand that the 200 report cards she thought had never been mailed out were duplicates of ones that made it to every home, with eight exceptions.

Asked about Jose's remarks about grading papers, Richardson is at first defensive, demanding the name of the class and the student; later saying that probably at any school in HISD, including his own, not every teacher is always doing what they should. He insists that in a team-teaching environment, it would take a conspiracy to operate inappropriately for long; that his personnel report problems and that these are investigated. "Our school administrators are held accountable."

As for course offerings, Richardson says, "We're not an [advanced placement] program. No other alternative program offers that." He says he can understand why a parent with a child with a behavioral issue alone would be disappointed in the course offerings, and how the student might be bored.

As for the mandatory length of stay, Richardson says that is the decision of HISD, not CEP. The company recommended it after years of work that showed 45-day stays usually helped turn around the behavior, but did little for the academics. Continued poor academics at their home school usually resulted in more poor behavior that got them tossed right back into the alternative facility, Richardson says. So in Houston, Dallas and now Philadelphia, CEP contracts call for a 180-day minimum.

As for the noncriminal kid who screws up one time but is at grade level, well, Richardson says: "What we have here is an unintended consequence."

Connie Anderson noticed her son was having problems with his grades. Her son had been used to a smaller school setting at another district's middle school and now he was trying to negotiate the mega-village known as Lamar High.

So Anderson did what any good parent should do: She asked for a meeting with her son's teachers and school counselor to see if they could get him back on track. It was at this meeting she found out that her ninth-grader had also been skipping school -- a lot.

Upset, she appealed to the educators for help. A single mother since the sudden death of her husband two years ago, she had made a job move from League City into the Houston district. Her other son, the first one's twin, was thriving. But this boy always needed a little more attention, especially since his father died.

"The only thing I was offered was CEP," she says. "I went out there, took a look at it. It's a lockdown program. It's scary."

She went back to Lamar. Isn't there something else, something else you can do for him? No, they told her. He's continuing to cut classes, to talk when he shouldn't, to talk back to teachers. CEP is the only choice.

Finally they sent her a notice. Her son's attendance was now mandatory at CEP. It was only at that 11th hour that another parent told her of another way out: charter schools.

"He just changed schools at the beginning of March. He's going to Heights Charter School. He's doing well there," she says. "He's not cutting."

The principal at Heights Charter has told Anderson her son is doing fine. He's also told her that if her son had gone to CEP first, as the school district was demanding, he could not have been admitted to the charter school.

Parents have options, of course. A child can drop out. The family can move to another district, although parents say they have been told by surrounding districts that HISD's discipline decisions will be honored. It's late in the year for private schools to admit new students, and besides, part of what goes with their admission fees is an implied guarantee that they will weed out any potential problems.

It's not just that schools don't want bad kids anymore. They don't want questionable kids, students who might cause any sort of blip on a principal's school record.

Brenda Jones has a son who was recently sent to CEP's Beechnut facility, and she is doing everything she can to change that. On Fridays, she hands out green slips of paper to other parents, urging them to unite against what the district is doing. She'd like to find an attorney to represent them as a group.

"Yes, he should be removed from the classroom," she says of her son. "But it should be until the end of the year." To go beyond that, Jones says, is cruel and unusual punishment.

Parents like Brenda Jones and the Fulks are afraid their children will never catch up again the longer they are at CEP schools, which Jones calls "academic death camps."

Drew Fulk entered CEP as a sophomore. Ten days after he completed orientation, he was told he'd satisfied all his course requirements and was now a junior.

"We love Drew to death," Rayette Fulk says. "But he is not a junior."

According to the TEA's Jacobs, it is up to HISD to ensure the scholastic credibility of CEP. The TEA's involvement is to look at academics as they relate to TAAS scores. The TEA is also compiling data on why students in Texas are being removed from class and how long they are out, Jacobs says. Unfortunately, his findings support Jones's worst fears.

"We've discovered so far that the longer students are removed from certain programs, we see academic regression," Jacobs says.

Although HISD did not honor repeated Press requests to talk with Principal Lawson, the Fulks have a recording of their hearing with him. On tape, after Kirk Fulk expresses the concern that his son will be losing a year by going to CEP, Lawson responds: "The quality is not the same as in-house."

Challenged on the 180-day rule by Kirk Fulk, Lawson responds: "I don't see that I have a choice in the removal." Lawson says it is based on the 1997 contract with HISD. "Any student placed there is a 180-day placement. Principals have questioned that somewhat, but that is neither here nor there."

There is a certain dichotomy at work in the presentation of CEP for public consumption. While HISD board president Jeff Shadwick and CEP literature extol the 180-period as purely an academic need -- Shadwick in a letter asserts it is "not punishment related" -- this is not the message sounded by interim superintendent Stripling in her letter to Sadler. As Stripling puts it, one of the key CEP benefits is the message HISD sends to "all students": that they will be removed if they break the law or are disruptive. "As a result, student behavior and the general climate of HISD schools have improved….We feel that the CEP partnership has contributed in part to our record of progress."

Representative Sadler, in his education committee questions, appeared most appalled at the contract's guaranteed minimum enrollment. "If this was [the Department of Public Safety] and you were talking about speeding tickets, you would fill up this room with outraged citizens. Why isn't this a quota?"

CEP is supposed to be one option for HISD in dealing with flawed students, not the only option. But HISD administrators, educators and school board members have drawn a line in the sand. The golden number, the only number, is 180 days.

But now, some parents, some more influential parents, are screaming, saying hey, wait a minute, this defies common sense. It sure didn't pass the smell test for Sadler. The TEA's Billy Jacobs, while stressing that he must remain neutral, is obviously bothered by parts of it.

This kind of pressure then results in more accommodating statements, like the one Randle Richardson makes: "It's easy to change what we're doing. I don't think anybody intended to create a circumstance holding back an advanced placement student."

So, HISD, you might have to be less expeditious, less time-efficient, more available to reconsider what you are doing. Make sure CEP is all it's supposed to be. Get the kids into CEP who need it, for however long they need it, for however long it's helping more than harming. Then get them out.


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