Learning Curve

Kids caught the last of the summer sun while teachers returned to school. The two weeks before students swarm in and school starts is usually a peaceful, pleasant time. The halls are empty and quiet as instructors plan lessons and decorate classrooms.

Dr. Kathyrn Montross had even more reason to anticipate the beginning of this fall's semester at the Ferndale school, operated by the private company Community Education Partners. The alternative program contracts with public school districts to teach badly behaving students who might otherwise fail. Only a month before the semester's start, the company hired Montross as administrator at Ferndale.

She was trying to rally the teachers and get everyone ready to greet the kids and kick off a dynamic new school year. But staff training and leisurely what-did-you-do-on-your-summer-vacation talks were soon interrupted. The school was bombarded with angry parents who couldn't wait for the first PTA meeting. They were mad. They wanted answers immediately.

Montross was surprised to learn that their children had not even received report cards from the spring semester. Parents didn't know what grades or what credits their children had received. They had no idea what level their children were going to be in -- or even where they would be placed the next year.

Teachers pitched in and searched for the missing cards. They found an unmailed stack of nearly 200 report cards for Ferndale students from the Pasadena Independent School District. They also found a matching stack of the same students' four-month-old final exams that had never been graded. Those tests account for 25 percent of the final grade. So Montross wondered where the grades on the report cards had come from. Employees, she recalls, told her that they had been made up.

On their hands and knees, Montross and her staff looked under cabinets and waded through boxes in search of students' academic folders. But most of the work was missing. Montross was certain she could find the students' work to justify the grades and assuage the 20 to 30 angry parents calling her every day. "The work had to be somewhere," she says. "But it wasn't."

Concerned that grades had been fabricated, Montross went to her boss, former Ferndale school administrator Anthony Edwards, on August 11. In an account of events that is sharply disputed by CEP officials, Montross recalls Edwards telling her that the ungraded exams and unsent report cards weren't important. He said that she needed to focus on getting the new school year started.

Frustrated with his repeated brush-offs, Montross phoned CEP headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, and talked to Chief Operating Officer Scott Leftwich. It was August 15, the day before school started, and she told Leftwich she felt uncomfortable stepping out of CEP's chain of command. But as a respected educator she felt far more uncomfortable with fabricated grades.

After she outlined her concerns, Montross says, Leftwich -- like Edwards -- told her she just needed to concentrate on starting the school year and not worry about the past. He assured her that he would keep her call confidential, she remembers.

At 9 p.m. that day she was fired.

Since Montross's departure, other teachers and staffers have left the Ferndale school, frustrated by what some of them say is a shoddy operation that has fabricated grades and related records, withheld needed supplies and ignored students.

Governor George W. Bush in 1995 signed off on a state policy to help keep troubled kids from falling through the cracks of the system. Texas mandated that counties provide education for students who had been expelled from regular classes for school-related felonies. CEP was formed shortly thereafter by high-ranking Tennessee Republican Party officials who appeared to have more political clout than educational credentials. CEP's first contract came with the Harris County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program. That has expanded into a lucrative contract with HISD guaranteeing CEP 2,500 students over the span of the school year.

Houston has two campuses: Ferndale and Beechnut. Both were dedicated by former president George Bush, who gave warm speeches about how the new schools give kids hope for the future and a chance to succeed. In exchange for an HISD contract of about $9 million, CEP has helped lower the district's crime rate and has taken disruptive kids out of regular classrooms.

Houston school officials and Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, report that classrooms are more pleasant, more peaceful, without the troublemakers. By enlisting CEP's help, HISD is aiming to stop senseless social promotion; they don't want to pass kids who don't deserve to pass.

Last year CEP expanded to take in about 250 students from the Pasadena Independent School District and about 200 from the county's alternative education program. The company also has a school in Dallas and negotiated a five-year contract with a school district in Philadelphia. In five years CEO Randle Richardson hopes to have a dozen schools operating nationwide.

Last year respected educators and researchers Diane Ravitch and Mary Butz gave a glowing evaluation of CEP and its ability to escalate student learning rates. They praised the tranquil setting. Students rarely leave the classroom. There is no school library, and there are no lockers. A CEP facility doesn't look like a traditional school -- there aren't even blackboards or dry-erase boards in the classrooms. Instead, students sit at work stations lining the walls and rely on computer programs and video learning. Instructors rarely do standard teaching since CEP relies on students to work on their own and set their own pace. The Ravitch report said the kids were "engaged" at their computer terminals and that the program was highly effective.

But CEP's biggest claim -- what none of the nonprofit education programs offers -- is its 100 percent satisfaction money-back guarantee. If the company doesn't increase attendance and improve a student's learning by two grade levels during a full school year, then it doesn't get paid. Officials promise that they will re-educate that student for free.

That sounds like a great deal. But the guarantee that students will pass under CEP's tutelage transformed into the fact that students must pass, says Kim Pritchard, an educator who recently resigned from Ferndale. She was told that students could not fail.

Pritchard provided the Houston Press with stacks of CEP student report cards. If a student had a failing grade or "incomplete" written on the card, the grade was crossed out and replaced by a flat 70 -- just enough to pass.

In many cases the student report cards show straight 70s -- in every subject for every six weeks. That is highly improbable, if not impossible. Pritchard explains that if a student's work was missing and a teacher hadn't turned in grades, then a supervisor used her "professional judgment" and either averaged the grades she had or made them up.

Pritchard sent the supervisor (who is no longer with CEP either) an e-mail dated May 3 refusing to log newly created grades. "I do not feel right entering grades that I know are fabricated," she wrote. "I'm sorry, but this is one thing that I am adamant about. I have been a teacher too long and I cannot justify doing this. I hope you understand."

So the supervisor entered the data herself, Pritchard says.

Pritchard's frustration is echoed by a former learning manager. "That school needs to be closed down," says Kimberly Moore. "Ain't a damn thing being learned in that school. Nothing."

Last December CEP Chief Executive Officer Randle Richardson asked a Ferndale administrator to compile a list of concerns about the school. That way they wouldn't make the same mistakes at other schools. The administrator, after speaking with teachers, students and other employees, typed up a seven-page memo that isn't as glowing as the Ravitch report.

CEP is supposed to be an accelerated learning program, yet the report notes that some courses had so much work that they took longer to complete than at a regular school. It says that students have a hard time earning credits and that teachers have a hard time keeping up with the grading.

"Being an individualized self-paced program presents a problem in and of itself," the report says. Teachers are responsible for grading all subjects from sometimes 30 students all working at a different grade level. A shortage or even absence of teacher's edition textbooks compounds problems because those are needed for instructors to grade tests and related work, the memo says. Teachers give up trying to really grade the work. "Instead, they give a grade for turning in work (passing grades are being given, whether the content is correct or not) and move on, because "real grading is just too difficult.' "

Also, the self-paced program wasn't working for special education kids who don't read well (if at all) and can't motivate themselves and work on their own. Yet another problem was science labs. In a regular school, students at the same learning level would all participate in standardized lab work. At CEP, each student does a lab whenever he wants to, at his individual grade level. Teachers don't have time to buy the wide variety of materials needed for the different labs. And it's hard for instructors to supervise one student doing an all-day lab with toxic chemicals, while overseeing other students and their projects at the same time.

Under the heading "Accountability," the report notes that since most of the teachers do not have an educator's background, they don't really understand what is expected of students at different grade levels. "Consequently, students are being allowed to turn in work that is completed far beneath their "expected' level (I have seen high school coursework that looks as if an elementary student completed it; the teacher graded it 100)."

The report also notes numerous issues with accuracy of grades. The document notes that supervisors spent 90 percent of their time dealing with student behavior when they're supposed to be responsible for education.

The report was sent to corporate headquarters, but the trouble continued. Instructors say they felt ineffective. "I don't feel like I taught anything," says former teacher Nicole Perkins. "All I did was baby-sit."

Regular school teachers find it hard to teach with one kid sitting in the back disrupting the class, but at CEP teachers have a room full of often badly behaving students. Moore, the former learning manager, showed the Press a stack of original handwritten discipline reports. Students have learned how to rig paper clips to the backs of TV monitors in order to watch regular network shows instead of school programming. Students gambled, shooting craps in the classroom, came to school stoned and cursed at teachers. Fights broke out on a daily basis, Moore says.

She walked into a classroom last February when a student was assaulting the teacher, and the girl turned her fists on Moore. Knowing Moore was four months pregnant, the girl punched Moore's belly until Moore wrestled the girl to the ground, she says. (Moore had asked not to be in the section with the more dangerous kids who had committed felonies when she found out she was pregnant. She says she was told to quit if she couldn't handle it.)

Moore ended up with $386 in medical expenses (to make sure her baby was okay) and was fired over the phone a few months later. The reason for her termination, she says, was that a student accused her of allowing him to be beaten while under her supervision. She was never given the opportunity to respond to the accusations, she says.

An often large student-teacher ratio can create a dangerous environment. According to CEP's contract, there are supposed to be about 12 students per teacher. But Amy Folse says she was the only teacher in her classroom of about 30 students. CEP doesn't have classroom phones or other links for emergency help. "If something happens, all you can do is open your door and scream," Folse says. Working in an environment where teachers were regularly assaulted was highly stressful and made teaching difficult, she says.

Lack of materials also made Folse's job hard. The Houston Chronicle reported that all CEP student computers are equipped with Pentium processors. "They are meticulously maintained by an on-site maintenance crew and through a comprehensive service agreement with the manufacturer." Yet Folse has e-mails she sent to the computer experts saying that the computers would not let students log onto the system, wouldn't allow teachers to save materials and sometimes wouldn't even boot up.

Pritchard e-mailed her supervisor saying that two instructional areas did not have enough computers and that the students were getting unruly because they didn't have any work to do. They were bored.

Folse says her students did not have books for the majority of the semester. She had to drive across town to the Beechnut campus and pick them up herself. When the Pasadena ISD officials toured her classroom, books were taken from HISD students and given to her Pasadena students, Folse says. "It was a show," she says.

The shortage of teacher's editions of books caused some of the most serious problems. Folse taught students ranging from fifth to 12th grade and needed the special editions to help provide the answers to grade papers and tests for the variety of students. But those books were kept in a locked room, and she documented the numerous times the door was locked.

If teachers didn't know the answers, they couldn't grade the work. If they didn't grade the work, then the teachers got written up, Moore says, so often teachers made grades up. "They had to," Moore says.

Montross seemed like a perfect fit for CEP. She's been an educator for 25 years and holds a doctorate in education administration. She taught at the University of Missouri, was an evaluator for the Dallas Independent School District's magnet program and spent the last eight years as an administrator in the Windham School District (part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice). "I know how to go in and get a school going," she says.

She especially wanted to work at CEP after her involvement in the prison system. She thought that CEP was a great program; she liked its goal of keeping kids from falling through the cracks and ending up in jail. "They need serious help," she says. "We can't just keep locking them up."

Everyone at CEP seemed happy when she joined the staff. She flew to the Nashville headquarters, met the top executives and went through training.

She met with Pasadena Independent School District officials who told Montross they didn't trust the records CEP provided them. She promised that under her supervision, records would be accurate. With such assurances, the Pasadena district renewed the contract.

Yet at the Ferndale campus, she says, she was never even given her own office. Anthony Edwards never vacated his lush office with comfy leather chairs, a framed Sam Houston diploma and quotations in calligraphy about God helping students succeed. Montross was promised that eventually she would be given his office. In the meantime, she worked at a table in a supply closet with Edwards's stored files, a water fountain and the office coffeepot.

From her supply closet, she fielded phone calls from parents angry about the missing report cards. Attendance records were in a shambles. "Students were counted absent when they were there and being cited absent when they were not," Montross says. She searched for a master attendance list, but she couldn't find one.

Montross discovered the fabricated grades and tried to rectify what she saw as a mess. But when she pointed out the illegal activities, CEP executives got angry, she says.

Edwards told her she was "grossly incompetent" and that he was firing her because she called his boss and tattled. A July 17 memo from Chief Operating Officer Leftwich said: "Always honor the chain of command, be a good follower." But it also said: "It's your duty to disagree with your boss if you think you're right."

On the day after Montross was fired, Pritchard handed in a four-page single-spaced letter of resignation after less than a year at CEP. Montross, she wrote, was the best thing that had ever happened to CEP. "The continuation of unethical and oftentimes illegal practices by management personnel at CEP has caused me to make this decision," she wrote.

Students were wrongly placed or promoted, she wrote. "This unbelievable lapse in judgment is appalling," Pritchard continued. "CEP is not a school that cares about its students; CEP is a corporation that cares about money and profits."

Next to leave was Sandy Cortez-Rucker. She resigned three days after the firing of Montross, who had hired her as dean of students after working with her in the past. Cortez-Rucker says her only choice was to stay at Ferndale, where she was told to falsify records -- and risk losing her teaching certification -- or leave. So she left. She didn't want to, because she is the sole provider for her family since her husband is working on his doctorate in school psychology. "Dr. Montross was fired because of the information I gave her," Cortez-Rucker says. "I was next on the list."

Several other employees left CEP too, saying they didn't want to be a part of illegal activities. Ellen Robinson, who found the ungraded finals, quit immediately. "It didn't feel right, it didn't look right, and I needed out of there. I cut and run, and I'm glad I did," she says. "They're taking federal money, they're taking state money, and they're falsifying. I worked too hard to become a teacher, and I'm well respected with what I do, and I have no desire to lose my certification over some kind of crazy foolishness. I got out." She had been hired by Montross and had worked with her for years.

Both Montross and Cortez-Rucker hired attorney Ellen Sprovach and filed lawsuits in state district court accusing CEP of retaliating against them because they refused to engage in unethical and illegal activities.

Cortez-Rucker says that when a student's record did not have a grade, she was ordered to average existing grades and make one up. She also alleges that CEP does not maintain proper TAAS records or administer the TAAS correctly. Sitting in her attorney's office, she rubs her hands together. She says that the stress from her unemployment has worsened her rheumatoid arthritis. She hasn't found a new job yet; her husband wants her to start working on a Ph.D.

Amy Folse is also gone from CEP. When she received her last paycheck, she mailed her resignation letter the next day. "I wasn't going back," she says. "I didn't care if I had to clean out urinals -- I wasn't going back to CEP. No way."

Company officials, and even the public school districts that contract with them, play down the departures and revelations at the Ferndale campus.

For HISD, this isn't the first time CEP has been accused of falsifying student progress. Last spring the Press reported that an in-house HISD evaluator found that students' academic scores were getting worse the longer they stayed at CEP -- despite claims by Superintendent Rod Paige and others that CEP kids were making fantastic progress.

The evaluator found that both reading and math scores on the Texas Learning Index (which shows growth) and the percentage of students who passed the TAAS were lower after they attended CEP. [See "Making (Up) the Grade," by Wendy Grossman, April 6.] HISD and CEP denied the validity of the study and challenged the competency of HISD's own evaluator. Before the district could issue him a letter of reprimand for misusing district computers for posting his concerns on an evaluators' chatboard, he resigned.

While the Ferndale accusations focus on students from the Pasadena district, HISD would seemingly be concerned because it has the vast majority of students under CEP supervision. However, HISD spokesperson Terry Abbott says that the district has found no falsification of records. CEP has responded to every HISD request to "improve the learning opportunities," he says. "They are now requiring that principals and other supervisors inspect and correct any problems in the classroom," he says. Asked what problems he is referring to, Abbott refuses to elaborate.

In short, as far as HISD is concerned, everything is under control.

Kirk Lewis, executive director of communications and community relations for the Pasadena Independent School District, says the district is now "comfortable" with its relationship with CEP. But at contract time it wasn't happy.

"We did have some issues last year with some of the grades that were lost and misplaced and attendance was not being reported back to the school as accurately as we needed to be," he says. "We couldn't really figure out exactly how it happened. We ended up being able to assign the students a grade that everyone was comfortable with, but it took us a lot of hassle, a lot of work, to get to this point."

As for the lawsuits, CEO Richardson says he didn't know of them until the Press called him. Since the plaintiffs were both managers, he thinks the lawsuits stem from their desire to get money, not from any wrongdoing.

Anthony Edwards told Richardson that he fired Montross because "in the course of training he felt like she would not be able to handle the school," Richardson says. "On more than one occasion he gave directions to her that he didn't feel was followed. He made the decision before school started that she couldn't run the school and dismissed her."

Richardson says Montross is a "nice lady" -- he chatted with her the week before school started. "She never raised an issue with me," he says. "I'm the person, if she thinks something is wrong or illegal, she should probably be complaining to. She never once said there was a problem or an issue."

Leftwich told him that Montross called him only after she was fired; she says she spoke to him before. "Either way, it's the same day," Richardson says. "She should have said something sooner."

Richardson says that the missing report cards should not have been any concern to either Montross or Cortez-Rucker, because they did not work at CEP last spring. He says that Edwards dealt entirely with Pasadena to the school district's satisfaction.

Disgruntled ex-employees filed the "frivolous" lawsuits, Richardson says. He feels certain that both cases will be dismissed.

Montross is the kind of principal who always has candy on her desk and remembers students' names. She's the type whose door is always open (at CEP it certainly was, since teachers traipsed in and out to refill their coffee cups) and is willing to listen to anyone's complaint. She exudes a calm, collected, everything-will-be-all-right aura. She's used to making things right. She's not used to facing unfixable problems.

She's never been fired, and she never thought she would be. Her kids are grown, and her husband makes a good living as a prison psychologist. She says she doesn't really need to work; she does it because she wants to. She wants to help at-risk teens learn.

At CEP, Montross was trying to do what she always does: fix problems. But when she tried that, she got fired. The stress has caused her severe stomach pain, including a stress-induced ulcer. She makes weekly trips to the doctor, who has put her on a special diet of bland, boring foods (the diet itself is stressful for her; she's a woman who loves to eat and loves to cook). Now she spends her time spoiling her husband, her five cats (Boris, Bubba, Badcat, Baywolf Bob and Desdimona) and her two dogs (Boudreaux and Thibadoux). "My husband and my dogs are getting round," she says. She started cooking for the dogs; they especially love her scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon. "I've had to loosen their collars," she says.

Montross has some job offers on the table, and she's been busy planning her son's December wedding. She's also collaborating with her husband on a pop psychology self-help book, tentatively titled Get Over It. It's about dealing with life's little problems. Not big ones like being fired. She's still learning how to cope with that.


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