Shakeup of disciplinary school system underway

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

Acknowledging for the first time that only seven percent of students sent to privately managed disciplinary schools successfully return to regular schools in a given year, District officials are revamping contracts this summer to require the providers to collect more data and show evidence that students are progressing toward graduation.

In its largest single program budget cut for 2008-09, the School Reform Commission slashed $5 million in June from its contracts with the discipline and alternative school providers – almost all of that coming from the largest and oldest contractor, Community Education Partners (CEP). With little handle on why some providers charged more per pupil than others, the SRC said that it wanted to achieve consistency in what was paid to each company and free up money for more variety in the models.

In another signal of a new direction, CEO Arlene Ackerman has revealed plans to have disciplinary and alternative schools be organized as one of the District’s academic regions. She has hired Benjamin Wright, a former local official with Victory Schools and someone she previously worked with in Seattle, to run it.

“I believe the alternative schools are part of the system, I’m not comfortable with them being an entity to themselves,” Ackerman said in an interview.

These moves are a prelude to what could be a vastly reshaped disciplinary and alternative school landscape starting in 2009. The current providers are all negotiating new one-year contracts for the coming school year. After that, everything is up for grabs; new requests for proposals are in the works for providers to take the system forward.

In 2007-08, the District had contracts with CEP and two other firms to operate the system’s six disciplinary schools, serving about 3,500 students, all sent there for “Level II” violations of the code of conduct. The District’s Office of Transition and Alternative Education oversaw these schools as well as seven small “accelerated” high schools, run by outside managers, serving another 1,200 over-age students who were behind in their credits and considered at risk of dropping out.

Early this year, a task force on alternative education headed by then-Chief Academic Officer Cassandra Jones concluded that the present alternative school options lacked enough spaces for over-age students with few high school credits – the great majority of disengaged youth. Further, it said, the entire system wasn’t focused enough on catching potential dropouts early. The task force report noted that there was no standardized way for young people to re-engage after leaving.

As for disciplinary schools, it said that the models vary, but “no evaluation has been conducted to date to analyze the efficacy of these models or the outcomes of students who become part of this system.”

There was similarly weak tracking of students who attend the District’s alternative schools for over-age students with few credits toward graduation, the report said.

Both the SRC and Ackerman agreed, expressing concern that the disciplinary school provider contracts were not rigorous enough in demanding outcomes so the District could determine what it was getting for its nearly $50 million outlay.

“It’s uneven,” Ackerman said. “We have not had any real accountability measures in place.”

One of the District’s goals for the new one-year contracts is to require the providers to enter student information in District systems – now, there is no such mandate – so their progress can be better tracked. Another is to measure students’ academic progress through state tests as well as the providers’ own assessments.

“In measuring literacy gains, we are probably going to ask them to take some common assessment, so we can measure growth over time,” Ackerman said.

The District also wants assurances written into the contracts that 80 percent of enrolled students will either graduate or earn enough credits to be promoted, and maintenance of at least 85 percent daily attendance. And for the discipline schools, District officials want to raise the percentage of students restored to their home schools each year from 7 to 25 percent.

The alternative education task force report found no clear patterns in how and why students become part of the discipline system – eight schools were responsible for more than a quarter of the referrals – and had little information about what happens to them once they get there.

“It’s uneven at different schools,” Ackerman said. “Some people say ‘zero tolerance,’ others say ‘don’t do that again.’” She cited the example of a younger student who brought scissors to school being sent to a disciplinary program and being in the same setting as older children who have already had significant brushes with the law.

“One thing I know I’ll have to address is how students get assigned to disciplinary schools,” she said. Ackerman said that it is unacceptable to have such little consistency in that area, coupled with such a low restoration rate.

“Before schools assign students [to discipline schools], that should be the last resort,” she said. “But we don’t know if it is the last resort or the first. There should be interventions within the school environments first. And we’re not sure or clear that happens for all of those young people.”

Ackerman clearly put herself at odds with recommendations of another task force led by Safe Schools Advocate Jack Stollsteimer that reportedly suggested placing disciplinary programs under school safety rather than academics. “For me, I’d much rather address the preventive side of this issue and pour more resources in terms of stopping behavior before they get to a discipline school,” she said. “But I do understand the necessity for them.”

A subcommittee of her transition team is looking into alternative education and expects a report in a week or so, Ackerman said.

Under CEO Paul Vallas, the District’s disciplinary school system grew dramatically, but with little reporting on what happened to students once enrolled. But a 2006 study of the District’s dropout crisis
found that in the 2003-04 school year alone, more than 36 percent of the students enrolled in the District’s disciplinary schools dropped out, and another 9 percent attended less than half the time.

Two years ago, the Notebook analyzed the scattered available data on disciplinary schools and could only find evidence that about 500 of the more than 10,000 students who had passed through CEP’s doors until that time had either returned to regular schools or graduated.

CEP’s effectiveness is also being hotly debated in other cities, including Houston and Atlanta. The company has been fighting back this year after its Atlanta schools were hit with a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Randle Richardson, the president of CEP, said in an interview that “it was hard to argue” with the District’s decision to reduce the number of slots available in his program, both because the city’s overall public school enrollment is going down and because officials are seeking new approaches.

He said that next year, CEP expects to have capacity for 1850 students rather than 2150, and will cede Allegheny – one of its three campuses, along with Miller and Hunting Park – back to the District.

“We understand the need for change, and we’re trying to adapt to that change, and we’re trying to work with them the best we can,” Richardson said. He said that the services available to the students at CEP would not be reduced.

As for accountability, he said that he had numbers indicating that the restoration rate of students back to regular schools was higher than 7 percent, but did not provide them to the Notebook by press time. He added that CEP was limited in the data it could collect on students by federal privacy laws and would do more if the District asked.

“They need to tell us what they want,” he said. “I understand we’re agreeable to whatever they’re asking for.” He said that in some of its other cities, including Richmond, VA, CEP collects far more data on students.

CEP, a Tennessee-based company, came to Philadelphia in 2000, before No Child Left Behind required school districts to increase test scores and reduce dropout rates, Richardson said. “We started when NCLB and state requirements were not in place,” he said. “Now that they are, there tends to be more focus on state test scores and dropout rates. My sense is the District is going to have to put more focus on meeting those requirements.”

The administration of former Supt. David Hornbeck hired Community Education Partners at the behest of then-House Majority Leader John Perzel, and the legislature created a new funding stream – called Alternative Education Demonstration Grants – to pay for the contract. As CEO Vallas expanded the private network of disciplinary and alternative schools, the AEDC amounts increased, reaching as high as $22 million for Philadelphia in 2006-07.

But for the past two years, since Perzel lost his leadership post, that figure has gone down to $14 million.

Until the creation of the task force on alternative education, the District had little public discussion of the best options for dealing with disciplinary transfers, never provided any data to back up the per-pupil outlays, and never explained why one provider gets more than another.

Ackerman said that the new contracts will not provide exactly equal per-pupil amounts to each provider, but said that CEP’s costs will be reduced from over $13,000 per student to $12,000.

Wright, the official Ackerman has hired to run the alternative education region, said that his priority will be to increase accountability and make sure all the schools have solid academic plans for helping students catch up.

“They have to have a plan for graduating students or transitioning them back to regular schools,” Wright said. “They can’t just warehouse them.