Some students, no matter where they attend school, are bound to break the rules.
But troublemakers in the Houston Independent School District are treated differently than most. They’re outsourced to one of two campuses run by a private company, Community Education Partners, which is tasked with reforming their behavior and catching them up academically.
Most districts in Texas and nationwide run their own alternative schools for students with discipline problems. HISD’s new superintendent, Terry Grier, announced this month that he’s considering following suit and asking the school board to bring the $20 million-a-year alternative program in-house.
“It’s amazing to me that we have spent this kind of money and haven’t done a study,” said Grier, who took over HISD in September and has ordered a report on CEP. “Are we educating children, or do we have children in a holding pattern?”
The answer depends on whom you ask. Some school board members and the leader of the teachers union are ardent supporters. But the number of school systems relying on CEP to operate their campuses for poorly behaved students is dropping.
School districts in Dallas, Pasadena, Charleston County in South Carolina and, mostly recently, Atlanta have all stopped doing business with CEP. The Austin school board recently flirted with CEP but ultimately decided against it.
Evaluation isn’t easy
None of the disciplinary alternative schools in Texas — private or public — is rated under the state’s academic accountability system.
“We don’t really have any idea how any of the programs are working except for local evaluations,” said Leslie Smith, a program specialist at the Texas Education Agency.
Because students spend various lengths of time at an alternative school, from a month to a year, grading the programs’ influence on their test scores is difficult.
HISD, which has paid CEP about $180 million since contracting with the firm in 1997, has not conducted an extensive evaluation of the program in recent memory, according to Carla Stevens, the district’s assistant superintendent of research. In January, the school board unanimously approved another five-year, $100 million contract with CEP. The administration had recommended three years, but the board extended it.
Former CEP teachers admitted to the Houston Chronicle that they worked there for years without being certified, though the company has recently cracked down. They also said their classes sometimes topped 30 students — which exceeds the state maximum of 15 per teacher. Another problem, they said, is that high school students at CEP aren’t always separated by grade level — meaning a math teacher could have to cover algebra I, algebra II and geometry in one class.
HISD curriculum followed
Teachers also said they felt discouraged from assigning homework — in part because students are supposed to come to CEP empty-handed, without even a pencil.
“I would beg these students, ‘Please do your work,’ ” said Sherry Diogu, a former social studies teacher at CEP’s southwest Houston campus. “One of the administrators told me, ‘Don’t beg them. If they don’t want to work, just give them a 50 (for a grade).’ ”
Diogu, who began working for CEP in 1997, said she was fired this year after failing her teaching certification exams.
Randle Richardson, CEP’s chief executive officer, said his Nashville-based company began requiring teaching certification a few years ago at HISD’s request. The CEP schools also follow the district’s curriculum.
“When we first started with HISD,” he said, “they were not as concerned about the teachers as they were about behavior modification and the social services.”
All but one CEP teacher is now certified, Richardson said, and that person has until the end of the school year to get in compliance.
Tony Gaines, a former CEP math teacher who was fired this year for not passing his certification exam, said the school was understaffed, with one instructional assistant shared among four teachers.
“Last year, there was an assistant on my roster, but I never saw her because she was assisting other classes,” said Gaines, who worked at the southwest campus.
Gaines said professional development to improve teaching skills was rare. He recalled attending a seminar five years ago.
Aida Tello, who became principal of CEP’s southeast campus last school year, said she has upped the focus on academics and said her teachers do participate in HISD’s training. She acknowledged that homework is rare, noting that many of the students have troubled family situations. “We focus more on meeting the individual needs of the kids when they’re here,” she said.
Tello used to be the principal of HISD’s Sam Houston High School, which improved under her leadership but not enough to get off the state’s unacceptable list.
94.5-day average stay
Valerie Beckham said she was so worried about sending her 17-year-old son, Aaron Blake, to CEP that she considering withdrawing him from HISD last year. But after accepting that Blake’s behavior problems were escalating at Lamar High School, she decided a more structured school with an array of counseling services might help. Her son has now spent more than 60 days at CEP.
“I do see an improvement with his overall demeanor and making choices and decisions,” Beckham said. “He does want to go back to his home school, even though he has actually said, ‘I’m kinda glad that I came here.’”
According to CEP, HISD students who stay in its program at least 120 days improve an average of 3.6 grade-skill levels in reading and 4.0 in math. On average, HISD students stay 94.5 days, said Richardson.
HISD was the first school district to contract with CEP and remains its largest client. The company also has schools in Florida; Richmond, Va.; Pittsburgh; and Philadelphia, which recently scaled back its contract.
As a private company, CEP does not have to release its financial statements to the public. When asked for the budgets of his Houston schools, Richardson shared that 77 percent of CEP’s per-pupil fee is spent at the campus level; 14 percent covers administration; while 9 percent goes to taxes, debt service and profi