Are CEP's Days Numbered in HISD?

Two-thirds of the Houston ISD students sent to Community Education Partners, the private facility that operates two
alternative campuses here, aren't required to be there by state law. It's local district policy and the discretion of the individual principal that decides if a student is removed from his home campus and placed at CEP.

That's what an initial review of HISD's placement of kids at CEP revealed, Superintendent Terry Grier told school board members at Monday's agenda meeting prior to this Thursday's school board meeting. And to his way of thinking, some of the reasons students are ousted for discipline problems are things that the schools should have handled with a lighter touch.

Grier recommended that the district sever its ties with CEP and instead pay for a smaller alternative school that would only handle the most severe of the disciplinary problems. He estimated that they would need to plan for 1,000 slots just to be safe, and said he believes several companies would want to compete for the business. One possible solution, he said, would be to send the mandatory placement students to the Harris County Office of Education's program with two facilities. He said CEP could join in the bidding on the new school.

The students who commit lesser offenses could be placed in other HISD middle schools and high schools for a period of time. In this swap system, used now by schools in New Orleans, students are granted a second and last chance to avoid being sent to an alternative school. Placed in a new school they are told they can stay as long as they behave and apply themselves to their academics. One mistake and they're out. Grier says he's already discussed the idea with several principals and they are interested in it, as long as they are included in the planning (as in don't send kids from one school to its archrival).

"We're not talking about serious violators. If you look at the reasons, many times it's failure to comply. Many times he's talked back to a teacher. It's not for kids who've hit a teacher," Grier said.

The superintendent started out very carefully Monday, saying that he wasn't commenting on the worth of the CEP program (loved by Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon and strongly supported by trustee Larry Marshall, who was on the CEP consultant payroll in years past).

Instead, he focused his arguments on the fact that as the district faces the possibility of some significant financial shortfalls in the upcoming year, it needs to cut costs as it can. And why is it spending more than $21 million (an $18 million base contract with another $1 million built in for excess students, $1.5 million in transportation and about $210,000 for the Special Ed payroll) for 1,600 student slots (whether all are used or not) each year? He compared it to the cost of a private-school education. This year, he said, there are down in the number of students by 332 students compared to last year.

The district was supposed to have reported back on the results of a independent evaluator's assessment of CEP by now, but the evaluator came down with double pneumonia and now isn't expected to finish his report until April 1. So time ran out on the original contract extension until March 1.

But Grier said the district can still cancel the contract "without cause" if the trustees simply vote not to fund it.

The district's review of its own records revealed some troubling facts, Grier said. For one thing, why was the contract given to CEP each year instead of letting several companies compete? Why is HISD using its $1 million excess student payment to fund a charter school now at CEP? It doesn't fund any other external charters? Why was the money not returned to HISD?

Most of the referrals are at the middle-school level, many of them overage middle-schoolers.

A Houston Press call today to CEP headquarters in Nashville was not returned.

The response of board members was lukewarm at best. Although Grier had said he didn't think it was a good idea to reabsorb all the discipline cases into an in-house system (past efforts by HISD to do this didn't work well, he said), trustee Paula Harris clearly didn't relish putting a new program in place when the district will be trying to start so many other new things in the next school year. "I just don't want us to get off track with some of these schools," she said.

Manuel Rodriguez questioned whether this way putting too much stress on educators and other students in the swap system. Grier assured him it would not; as part of his proposal "each campus would received $10,000 for the use of mentors to assist in making the student transfer successful."

Trustee Marshall was most critical of the idea of the swap system, mainly because as Grier described it, it is being run in New Orleans public schools by Paul Vallas, who used to be in Philadelphia. "Philadelphia was left in shambles by Mr. Vallas," Marshall said. "I went and watched him go through circus acts and all he left was destruction... Your expert has credibility problems," he told Grier. Grier said Vallas got the swap-schools idea from nuns running parochial schools. "If we're going to be upset, let's be upset with the nuns," he told Marshall.

In the end, Grier couldn't restrain himself from commenting on the worth of CEP's program. "They don't get much of an education," he said, referring to the private program. "I've talked to principals who don't want to send the kids to CEP."

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing