HISD chief wonders if it’s time to drop alternative school program
By ERICKA MELLON | HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Jan. 3, 2010
Some Houston ISD principals banished as much as 11 percent of their students with disciplinary problems to a privately run alternative campus last school year, while other principals sent only one or two children away.
The wide disparity in principals' use of schools run by Community Education Partners has caught the attention of HISD Superintendent Terry Grier, who questions whether schools are kicking out too many students on trivial grounds.
Texas law requires that students be sent to disciplinary alternative programs for certain reasons — such as assault and selling or using drugs or alcohol — but gives principals discretion over less serious offenders.
“Why are some schools sending so many children to CEP for what on the surface look like much less serious disciplinary actions?” asked Grier, who, after four months on the job, has ordered a comprehensive review of the Houston Independent School District's arrangement with CEP.
The new superintendent is considering whether to ask the school board to end its $20 million annual contract with the Nashville, Tenn.-based company, which has run alternative schools in HISD since 1997.
If the district does oust CEP, Grier has said he likely would start an in-house alternative program like most other districts.
Principals disagree over the value of CEP. Some applaud the program, noting it helps the children sent there, as well as the students who remain on campus and who are then able to learn with fewer distractions.
Other principals, however, say they are reluctant to make referrals to CEP because they believe students there generally fall behind academically and don't return reformed. Even when students are at CEP, their scores on the high-stakes Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills count toward the academic ratings of their home schools.
“I do everything in my power to avoid having to send anyone to CEP,” said Bertie Simmons, the principal of Furr High School on the city's east side. “I have not felt that we've had great success with students that went to CEP. When they return to us, their behavior has not improved, and academically they're not as strong as when we sent them.”
Furr's rate is low
HISD records show that Furr had one of the lowest CEP referral rates during the 2008-09 school year — five referrals out of 881 students. Simmons remembers sending only one student, for hitting a teacher.
HISD students can be sent to CEP for up to 180 days, but the average placement is about half that, according to the company.
The district pays CEP a flat rate to serve as many as 1,600 students per school year.
The principal of Williams Middle School, Delesa O'Dell-Thomas, said she thinks CEP does “a great job.” She said most students return better-behaved, though she recalled one this year who was caught again with marijuana shortly after coming back from CEP.
“CEP is very necessary,” she said. “Oftentimes these are situations where teachers aren't able to teach.”
Williams Middle had the second-highest rate of referrals to CEP last year. The school, which had 449 students, made 49 referrals, according to data from HISD.
O'Dell-Thomas said she believes she had 39 students at CEP last year. The discrepancy could be due to repeat offenders and to students dropping out of HISD once they were sent away. The Williams principal said at least one parent last year decided to send her daughter, in trouble for fighting, to a charter school instead of to CEP.
“We tried our best to work with the parent, to work with the child,” O'Dell-Thomas said. “We could not get this situation settled.”
According to HISD records, middle schools referred about twice as many students to CEP as high schools did last year. The campuses with the lowest rates of referral generally had a greater percentage of Anglo students and students from wealthier families.
Rolando “Rudy” TreviÃ±o, who was principal of Sam Houston's ninth-grade campus last year, said he felt pressured by the Houston Federation of Teachers to send more students to CEP. He made 32 referrals — representing less than 4 percent of his school's student population, according to the district's data.
“I was heavily criticized when I was at about 10 (referrals) in November,” TreviÃ±o said. “In my eyes I was sending kids to CEP and I was witnessing dropouts. I knew if I sent a kid to CEP, he or she was more than likely not going to pass their TAKS test.”
Teachers union President Gayle Fallon, one of the most outspoken supporters of CEP, said state law dictates many of the referrals there.
“When a kid threatens a teacher's life or physically assaults them, they're not coming back to the classroom,” she said. “I don't care if I have to sit their happy butts in Grier's office.”
Based on data from HISD and CEP, it appears the majority of the referrals last school year were discretionary under state law. But determining the exact number is difficult because the data from each entity differ slightly.
Rowdyism and drugs
According to CEP, about two-thirds — or more than 1,900 of the referrals — were because of “disruptive behavior.” The next most popular reason was drugs — a mandatory referral — followed by assault, defiance and truancy.
HISD's data show similar trends, with two-thirds of students referred under the broad category of violating the district's code of conduct — which could include mandatory reasons — followed by drugs, fighting and assault.
For principals, deciding when to send students to an alternative school — whether it's run by CEP or HISD — is a tough call, said Joel Rosch, a senior research scholar at Duke University's Center for Child and Family Policy.
“If you put kids with anti-social tendencies together, no matter how good the program is, they're going to get worse,” he said. “The problem is, if you leave these kids in the public school, they may be so deviant that no one learns anything. It's not easy.”