After years of complaint, criticism and debate, a unanimous Houston ISD board of trustees on Thursday night finally decided to stop its practice of sending its suspended students to alternative schools run by private for-profit companies.
Instead, starting next fall, the district will once again operate its own disciplinary alternative education program (or DAEP), this time to be housed at the former Crawford Elementary School, at 1510 Jensen Drive. The site has been more recently used as the Mickey Leland College Preparatory Academy for Young Men.
“These are our kids,” was said over and over by speakers and board members who voted not to renew the district’s latest contract with Camelot Schools of Texas, who took over five years ago when Community Education Partners (also a for-profit enterprise) closed up shop after years of controversy about its operations.
Several Camelot employees and administrators addressed the board, saying they understood the students they receive and provide the structure to help these kids get back on track at the Beechnut facility before they return to their school.
While noting that Camelot had done much to improve conditions after taking over from CEP, Superintendent Richard Carranza said, "But at the end of the day, these are our students."
The sudden embrace of kids who’ve been routinely bounced from the district’s schools for 20 years – the termination issue has been up for votes over and over again since CEP started in 1997 – may have been leveraged in part by the board’s latest budget crisis.
Faced with the prospect of sending $78 million back to the state in recapture money this year alone since HISD has been declared a property-rich district by the state, trustees could certainly see the savings they could realize with a DIY project.
According to board documents, the Camelot contract at its current annual rate costs the district $8.6 million plus transportation costs of $1.2 million. The administration predicts a savings of $2.5 million a year by bringing it in-house.
The other important factor was the One Houston civic activism group, which so effectively campaigned last year to persuade the board to pass its no-suspension of pre-K through second-graders policy. Several OneHouston representatives spoke in favor of the change.
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Trustee Anna Eastman urged members of the group to continue to pay attention to what the district does at the new alternative school. "These are kids that need us. I'm asking all the people who came here tonight in favor of this to keep your eyes on this. That it's not just a thing that we're going to do and start and it's going to be magical and perfect. It's not. It's hard work. It's the hardest work that we do."
"I know these are some of our toughest kids. I hear people talk about having a dream one day of not having anything like this and while I'd like to hope for that, I think we are always going to have kids who come up through our system who are really tough and intense and have special needs and sometimes need to be out of the traditional classroom for their own sake and also for the sake of all the other kids in the classroom whose learning time is disrupted. I am going to support this. I have some trepidation. I think it's a huge thing we're taking on.
"I thank Camelot for their service to our kids, but these are our kiddos and I think we need to ultimately be the end of the line with them on this. "
Several principals addressed the board, saying that students who came back to them from the alternative school often ended up behind in their studies. Sam Houston High Principal Alan Summers said he found the course work at the alternative school did not match the HISD high school curriculum. "So a student who originally had a behavior issue now has an academic issue waiting for him when he returns to campus."