Brenda Jones keeps dogging CEP.
Brenda Jones keeps dogging CEP.
Deron Neblett

Million-Dollar Babies

The Houston Independent School District has been keeping children in the alternative schools run by a private company months, even years, after they should have been returned to their home schools, according to a Texas Education Agency investigation.

They have been retained in the program operated by Community Education Partners long past the end of the school year, far beyond their supposed 180-day mandatory sentences. The district pays more than $15.5 million a year to CEP to send students to this program.

Many of the students were first assigned to CEP in the 1999-2000 school year "and they are still of spring 2002 without any record of any further violations," Billy G. Jacobs, senior director of the TEA's Safe Schools Division, wrote the district June 6.

According to HISD spokeswoman Heather Browne, only a small number of students have been at CEP three years.

On February 20, the TEA told HISD to remove "voluntary" students -- kids supposedly placed or retained there by their parents -- from the two CEP campuses and return them to their original classrooms. This did not happen. Instead, the students remained at the school, where they spend most of their days at computer terminals working on "self-paced" courses, with minimal interaction from teachers.

Although HISD claimed in its correspondence with the TEA that parents had re-enrolled students voluntarily at the alternative schools set up to handle chronic offenders, Jacobs said that the district "was unable to provide documentation to support their claims that parents had requested that their children remain" and in fact, could not produce any parent request forms.

Even if the parents had asked that their children stay at CEP, there was no HISD board policy in place to provide for such a volunteer placement, Jacobs said. In fact, in a December 20, 2001, letter, TEA general counsel David A. Anderson told John Taylor, HISD's federal and state compliance officer, that any district that wanted to allow voluntary extensions would have to amend its code of conduct.

"Also remember that any student removed to a DAEP [Disciplinary Alternative Education Program] may not be placed beyond the end of the school year," Anderson wrote, without findings that the student had committed serious behavior offenses. "I seriously doubt any student removed [from his home school] solely because of a voluntary parental request could be found to meet that standard."

In his June 6 letter, Jacobs wrote that the "TEA is requesting a written response concerning the failure of HISD and CEP to comply with state law and district policy within 20 working days." HISD is working on its reply.

On June 13, the Houston school board took up the issue. It was time to renew its contract with the Nashville-based firm that claims it can raise a student two grade levels in one full academic year.

Just two days before, the Dallas school board had voted not to renew its $6 million contract with CEP, saying it was a bad deal that hadn't worked out for the students or the taxpayers.

In Houston, parent Brenda Jones, a longtime foe of CEP, addressed the board. She urged board members to have the "guts" to cut the tie with CEP and develop alternative programs of its own.

One trustee responded. Esther Campos wanted to know about the voluntary part especially. Jones had her hopes up. Finally someone was listening -- a rare occurrence among Houston trustees who've rather steadfastly ignored reports of fighting and verbal and physical abuse of students at CEP. Campos said she was concerned that parents could choose to keep their kids at CEP. But it turns out her concern was that it would prevent other kids who might need to go to CEP from getting in.

Bob Stockwell, HISD's chief academic officer, said no problem, the CEP-HISD agreement has a mechanism to deal with extra space and to enroll extra children.

So they all voted to keep the contract, except for Larry Marshall, who abstained. He's the board member who is paid $72,000 annually for four days' work each month as a consultant for CEP.

The board discussed but did not vote on several proposed changes to the HISD student code of conduct for the 2002-2003 school year -- one of which will allow a parent to make a onetime request for an extended stay at CEP for a child. This is expected to be approved by the July school board meeting.

The TEA's Jacobs said he was disappointed to hear Houston is going ahead with the voluntary program. "This is not what a disciplinary program was set up to do. They were set up to stabilize a child's behavior and bring him up to grade level and get him back into the regular program."

Keeping students in a disciplinary alternative program longer, where they aren't supposed to socialize with their peers and where they don't have social functions, just keeps them in isolation, which doesn't help them adjust to society, he said.

"Students should be back in the mainstream," Jacobs said, "because that's what they must do eventually or they may as well just go to prison now."

Why would CEP want to hold on to kids past the already heavy-duty 180-day sentence? Isn't that proof that its programs don't work?

"CEP has engaged in unscrupulous tactics to maintain students beyond their original assignments," Jones told Houston trustees. This is because, she said, letting students out of CEP is unprofitable.

In the 2000-2001 school year, HISD's contract called for CEP to enroll up to 2,500 students, for which HISD paid it $17.9 million a year. Student enrollment never approached those numbers. CEP needed the numbers up to justify the millions it was being given by HISD.

The push was on to meet the quota. HISD had to shuttle kids to CEP to get some sort of return on its investment. It didn't matter if the kid had been a truant or a drug dealer. One size fits all was the order of the day. Principals lost their discretionary powers and automatically sent kids to CEP. Last year, according to Browne, 2,856 HISD students spent at least a day at CEP.

After some outcry, chiefly from legislators involved in the House Public Education Committee who'd been visited by some irate Houston parents, the HISD administration cut the CEP contract amount last October by more than $2 million, while the number of guaranteed kids in the program was decreased to 1,600. Of those, 110 slots were set aside for a new category of short-term placements: students staying from 30 to 60 days. The just-approved contract remains at those levels.

The Dallas ISD went through a similar process but ultimately decided to jettison the program entirely. After signing a five-year, $10 million-a-year contract calling for CEP to house up to 1,500 students, DISD found itself objecting to the flat-fee agreement almost immediately when the number of kids going there hovered around the 300 mark. In 2001, after threatening to hold Dallas students out of CEP entirely, the new Dallas superintendent, Mike Moses, renegotiated a one-year, $6 million contract providing for up to 850 students.

In the end, DISD decided that didn't work either and bailed, Moses saying he thought DISD could offer a program just as good. DISD made the move even though it will have to spend $10 million to buy the building that CEP used.

Moses was able to make this change because he had the support of most of his school board members, who tended to blame a previous superintendent for the misstep. Although there has been a similar change of superintendent in Houston -- former superintendent Rod Paige is now U.S. secretary of education, and remains an ardent supporter of CEP -- Dr. Kaye Stripling is not working with a board opposed to CEP. She, herself, has supported CEP, saying it is necessary to ensure safety in the mainstream Houston schools.

Houston did take some other steps in response to the complaints about CEP. There is supposed to be more accountability and better monitoring of the CEP operation here by HISD. But that's about as far as it goes. As a result, Houston continues to greatly exceed the statewide averages on length of sentencing for the students it sends to an alternative facility.

Jacobs questions why HISD wants to continue with CEP, particularly when TEA data show that the longer a student is in a disciplinary alternative program, the worse his academics. He bases this on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills scores they're getting from alternative centers throughout the state.

It isn't just how long a student is in an alternative facility, Jacobs said. It's what is done with him while he's there. If there are certified teachers (most of the teachers at CEP are not) and students are focused and getting intensive instruction to help them catch up, then the program may work, he said.

In CEP's case, the private school provides the four core courses for high school students. This doesn't give them the electives required to graduate, though. Jacobs doesn't think most parents understand this, asking why a parent or a school district would want a child to stay someplace where he cannot complete his requirements for a diploma.

The majority of CEP students are not there for felony offenses, Jacobs said, but for simple code-of-conduct violations. "So you can't keep talking about 'I've got all these dangerous kids.' That's not the case."

The image the community has, though, the one perpetuated by its leaders, is that these students are really dangerous. "That's the rhetoric. The data does not prove out that rhetoric," Jacobs said.

In fact, statewide, between 75 percent and 85 percent of the students placed in disciplinary alternative education programs are there on a discretionary basis, rather than a criminal, mandatory one, Jacobs said.

Jacobs is in the process of developing a system to assess alternative education programs throughout the state. He wants to know, for instance, how many kids actually leave CEP and never go back to any other school. How many children never get promoted?

At the end of the assessment, Jacobs hopes he'll be able to say which alternative programs are succeeding and which are doing poorly in regards to preparing students for standardized testing. He'll be able to say which ones have disproportionate numbers of special ed and minority students. He wants better explanations of why so many discretionary students are going to disciplinary programs as opposed to other alternative programs. HISD has 12 alternative education programs and four disciplinary ones, spokeswoman Heather Browne said.

One of his hurdles to overcome in completing such a program, Jacobs said, is that "for several years we've never gotten complete data from HISD on any of the DAEPs." At a time when HISD's contract called for it to house 2,500 students at CEP, "they only reported 200 to 300 students," he said. "Houston made a better report this year, but I cannot validate whether that was all of the students or not."

Browne's response: "The district does recognize problems with data integrity and is working to resolve those issues."

Chief academic officer Robert Stockwell says HISD didn't move its voluntary CEP kids back to their home schools in February for "the best interests of the kids."

They decided not to disturb the kids for the remainder of this year, Stockwell said, and to instead change the policy to allow the voluntary placements in the future. Parents are being notified, and they will be given the option of requesting an extension, returning their children to their home schools, or sending them to another, nondisciplinary alternative program, he said.

"The performance of these kids [is] important to us, but they get sent away from the school in the first place because they're disruptive and they're destroying the home school environment for the benefit of the 99 percent of the kids who are there. That's why they lose the right to stay at the school," Stockwell said.

Jacobs said leaders who promote disciplinary alternative programs to the exclusion of everything else are using a tactic of fear, divisiveness and exclusion. No one wants bad, misbehaving, dangerous kids in the schools. No one wants other kids and teachers hurt. But as Jacobs said, most of the kids sent to CEP aren't dangers to themselves or others.

"If CEP was truly looking at what was in the best interests of children, I'd probably be one of their supporters," Jacobs said. "But what I simply see when you start locking districts in to guaranteed numbers, you're selling kids.

"When you start locking them in to guaranteed numbers of days, that has nothing to do with when a child is ready," he continued. "When you have a program that doesn't look at where a student is and what a student needs, that's a problem program, whether it's a public school or a private provider. And it's sad because the children suffer."

The children suffer, and taxpayers pay too much for something worth too little when something else might do some good.

Asked why HISD decided to keep CEP when Dallas didn't, Browne responded that "HISD feels CEP is providing an important service to the district and, more importantly, the students. As with any program, there is always room for improvement...the district feels the overall work done by CEP is beneficial."

Which raises the question of how does HISD know that? When asked whether HISD has tracked the graduation rate of CEP students, Browne said that "no tracking has been done at this point." Asked about low TAAS scores, Browne said the district doesn't know how the TEA arrived at this conclusion. CEP student TAAS scores are folded back into their home school, she said. So does this mean the district has no idea of how its CEP students are doing on the TAAS, and if so, what criteria exactly is it using to determine that CEP is beneficial?

On June 10, in a 4-3 vote, school board trustees in New Orleans approved a flat-fee arrangement with CEP for $8.7 million a year to house up to 1,000 students. The $51 million contract over six years also includes the mandatory 180-day stay, without exceptions.

After the vote, The Times-Picayune wrote that more time should have been taken, more thought given, especially considering the questions raised elsewhere about CEP. It noted that Rod Paige is a mentor of New Orleans schools chief Al Davis and that the CEP deal "was largely crafted under the radar."

CEP was built by businessmen with ties to high-ranking members of the Republican Party. Paige's chief of staff was a founder of CEP, resigning his position a few days before going to work for the secretary of education.

The company makes a habit of targeting urban school districts with high minority concentrations. Often the parents have neither the resources nor the means to fight having their children sent there.

Children are being swept away, and not to a program where qualified teachers work with them intensely to bring them up to speed. They disappear from sight. They cannot cause trouble in their home schools. They cannot embarrass the district there. They're tucked away, disposed of.

And some people are making a lot of money off these children's more-than-temporary detour into a dead end.


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