CEP clashes with critics in Texas

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

For more than two years, Community Education Partners, or CEP, has been quietly running an alternative discipline school here – quite a contrast to the controversy the for-profit company has generated with their programs in Dallas and Houston, Texas.

The Dallas Independent School District ended their relationship with CEP in June, responding to a growing concern that their latest $6 million contract with CEP was too large a sum for the number of students. District officials bought CEP’s building but said they had concluded they could manage an alternative school more effectively and cheaply themselves.

Houston also has a huge contract with CEP – it peaked at $17.9 million in 2001. The company has been operating an alternative school program in Houston since 1997. There CEP has encountered vocal and public criticism of its program from such varied sources as CEP parents; former CEP students, teachers, and administrators; state education officials; a court monitor; and a Houston district researcher. The heated debate has been picked up by local and national media and aired in state legislative hearings on alternative disciplinary programs.

But Nashville-based CEP has some significant and powerful supporters, including Rod Paige, the former superintendent of Houston schools, who is now President George W. Bush’s secretary of education. Bush’s father, former President George Bush, was on hand for CEP’s opening in Houston.

Houston school officials and CEP claim that the alternative program led to dramatic decreases in violence in Houston public schools, as well as good performance gains. The program has been popular with some parents and has won the support of teachers’ union president Gayle Fallon.

There are several recurring themes in the reported criticisms of CEP’s Houston schools:

  • That CEP schools are disorderly and unsafe. "There were fights and drugs on a daily basis, but as long as … there weren’t police or newspaper people, everything was fine," a former teacher told The New Republic in February 2001, while a former administrator described CEP as "a fiasco."
  • That instruction is ineffective. "All I did was baby-sit," former teacher Nicole Perkins told the Houston Press in October 2000. Others complaints about instruction have addressed shortages of materials and large numbers of uncertified teachers.
  • That CEP is "warehousing" students, keeping some for longer than allowed under state law and District policy. A senior director in the Texas Education Agency’s Safe Schools Division found in an investigation that the Houston district had been keeping some students in CEP for months or even years beyond their 180-day assignment and said he was unable to document the district’s claims that parents had requested that their children remain there.
  • That incoming students’ performance scores are deliberately depressed so that the progress they make appears greater than it is. A former Houston school district research specialist also claimed that the longer a Houston student is in CEP, the worse she or he performs on standardized tests.

The research specialist, Thomas Kellow, who in 2000 was reprimanded for circulating his findings without authorization and then resigned from the district, described CEP to the Houston Press as "a nice big rug to sweep things under. And it’s an attractive rug. What more could you want if you’re interested in tucking away kids?"

The company’s CEO, Randle Richardson, disputed these allegations and touted the company’s performance record in an interview with the Notebook.

He said the company’s critics in Houston, while vocal, are few. In Dallas, he said school board members who are staunch opponents of any "outsourcing" were the real reason CEP’s contract was jettisoned.

Richardson finds inaccuracies in the frequent, critical articles on CEP that have appeared in the Houston Press, a local weekly which he described as "unfair and one-sided – they did not allow the other side to be printed."

"We get overwhelming support from the union, from the community interest groups, from the education establishment," Richardson said. And on student performance, he added, "We achieved the progress that was asked for" – on a student assessment aligned with Texas standards.