It was one of those great, if little noticed moments in Houston history, as separate local chapters of LULAC (The League of United Latin American Citizens) - as usual belying the "united" part of their name - battled it out in the front foyer of the Houston ISD administration building Monday afternoon over whether the private company Community Education Partners is nothing more than a dropout factory that costs the district millions of dollars with little return in human capital or has saved countless kids' lives.
At issue is whether the district will go ahead with its contract that brings CEP $19 million a year, or ask for an extension of the upcoming December 15 deadline.
It was a LULAC smackdown, in keeping with the great history of an organization that from time to time hasn't been able to agree on best policies and procedures.
First up was the crowd from Council 402 -- the one that no longer accepts donations from CEP -- led off by Mary Almendarez, first vice president for LULAC Council 402. A representative from Children at Risk, Mandi Sheridan, was also there to say CEP, which manages two alternative schools in Houston for troubled students, does a lousy job.
According to the latest figures they've analyzed, of about "8,000 students who actually enrolled in CEP and returned to their home school, approximately 435 graduated." This is even lower than the prior estimate of 811. "Many of those 811 students however never actually enrolled in CEP so they should not receive credit for those students," the Council 402 press release stated.
Almendarez applauded new HISD Superintendent Terry Grier's willingness to look into CEP and get actual statistics on its operation. She said their council receives complaints every day from students and their parents about conditions at CEP.
Orell Fitzsimmons of Local 100 of the Service Employees International Union chimed in with "A lot of children leave the district who are sent to CEP. We shouldn't be paying millions of dollars to chase these kids out of the district."
And Mary Ramos, a LULAC state director, said she applauded the superintendent for looking into the matter: "I know that in speaking to a lot of politicians that no one wants to touch this. There's a lot of money being thrown around."
Next up was the counter protest by one of the oldest LULAC chapters in the state, Council 60 -- which does accept money from CEP -- who pledged their undying support. Members reprinted a report from 2007 in which a LULAC education committee, chaired by Noelia Murphy, found CEP was doing a dandy job and that CEP critic Robert Kimball (who is now being sued by CEP for allegedly wrecking its chances to sign a contract with the Austin ISD because he talked bad about CEP) had done a flawed job of collecting and analyzing his data.
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Council 60 also accused Kimball of attacking CEP only after he made an offer to implement a dropout-prevention program at CEP. Kimball, who was not at the press conference (because of the lawsuit), has said previously that he and LULAC were just trying to work with CEP to make it better -- especially since it houses so many Hispanic students.
Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon, who represents the teachers at CEP, joined in to say it's all a question of school safety. She dismissed its critics, particularly from people who have never been inside a classroom.
She also said the low graduation-rate numbers the other side is touting are bogus: "Most of their kids are in middle school and they aren't not even close to graduation yet." She also said that all kids cost the district money, so saying these kids cost money is nothing different than the norm.
Fallon said CEP is not afraid of an evaluation. No one was there from CEP to say otherwise. Perhaps representatives will show up at Thursday's board meeting when the issue may come up again.