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A Changing of the Guard at Houston’s Disciplinary School

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After 15 years of pioneering a private model of disciplining public school students — and arousing persistent controversy from Florida to Texas — Community Education Partners (CEP), one of the nation’s largest private education firms, says it is closing its doors. “We’ve decided to exit the market. We’re closing out CEP,” Randle Richardson, the company’s founder, told FRONTLINE.

CEP, which is featured in FRONTLINE’s broadcast, Dropout Nation, was once the destination for the Houston school district’s most disruptive students. Every morning, more than 1,000 students underwent the same ritual: wearing special uniforms, they reported to a facility run by CEP, where they were searched for weapons and contraband before entering the building. Once inside, they worked on intensive, computer-based lessons in math, English, social studies and science. Classrooms were designed to prevent students from congregating; bathrooms were often located in classrooms so that teachers and their assistants could keep constant watch.

To critics it seemed like a prison, but to state officials it was an alternative school. According to Texas state law, when students in grades 6-12 commit a major offense — violence, drugs or weapons possession — schools are required to send them to a disciplinary program. In Houston, that used to mean attending a CEP program for between 30 and 180 days. For certain lesser offenses, Houston schools could use their discretion in using CEP. In return, CEP’s Houston facility received almost $12 million a year in taxpayer money to house up 1,125 students — roughly $11,000 a student. More than 15,000 students passed through its Houston schools in the last decade.

But now CEP says it has sold its contract in Houston to another private operator. That contractor, Camelot Schools, is running the facility with most of the same staff for the time being. This puts an effective end to a company that Richardson, a former lawyer who once ran the Tennessee office of the Farmers Home Administration, founded in 1996. Until recently, it worked with thousands of students in Houston, Texas; Pittsburgh, Penn.; Richmond, Va.; and several cities in Florida. The company, which has been run out Nashville, Tenn., now says it closing its doors. “We no longer operate disciplinary schools,” Richardson told FRONTLINE, adding that CEP’s board reached the decision for financial reasons. The schools will continue to operate under new ownership.

CEP drew controversy and criticism. By placing all of a district’s disciplinary problems under one roof, CEP facilities created dangerous environments that resembled soft prisons, said critics like Mark Brentley Sr., a Pittsburgh school board director. “No child should be treated like this,” Brentley added.

In October 2008, a 16-year-old girl at a CEP school in Pittsburgh suffered a head injury, lacerations and contusions, and was taken to the hospital after she was struck in the face by a CEP security guard, according to medical records and other documents filed as part of a lawsuit in 2010. “[The girl's] alleged injury occurred when she was being restrained while assaulting another student,” Richardson says of the suit. CEP settled with the girl’s family for $18,000.

In Philadelphia, a former CEP student is suing the company after he was shot in the head by another CEP student as they were on a bus allegedly operated by CEP in 2009. The suit alleges the assailant was never searched for weapons before he got on board. Richardson responded that “CEP assumed authority over the students when they arrived at the school. All students were screened by CEP before entering the school; not when they got on the bus.” CEP maintained that it did not operate the bus.

The quality of teaching at CEP’s facilities was also criticized for emphasizing discipline over learning, according to a 2008 lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union filed against CEP’s Atlanta facilities. Citing an absentee rate at CEP facilities that was nearly 10 times the rate of the Atlanta school system, the ACLU alleged that “[CEP's] policies and practices operate to push Plaintiffs out of the public school system altogether.

Marcus, one of the students featured in Dropout Nation, told FRONTLINE that if he were required to return to CEP he would simply have dropped out instead. “I can’t go back to CEP. I went my 9th grade year. Every class I slept and I still managed to make at least a C or B.” Faced with the choice of going back to CEP or dropping out, Marcus said, “I wouldn’t have went to CEP. I probably would’ve just dropped out.”

CEP denied that its schools were run like prisons. “Students are not incarcerated. They’re not behind bars. It’s not a correctional facility. Students go home at night,” Richardson says. But a private prison company, the Corrections Corps of America (CCA), constructed CEP’s first two facilities in Houston and Dallas, according to documents Correction Corps filed with the Securities Exchange Commission. Correction Corps financed the buildings, at a cost of $13 million, and describes them as “juvenile/minimum security facilities.” Richardson explained that it took financing from a real estate trust run by CCA because it offered the best interest rates available at the time. As part of its 2008 suit, the ACLU claimed that by requiring daily body searches CEP was violating students’ constitutional rights. The ACLU dropped the lawsuit in 2010, after the Atlanta school district decided not to renew CEP’s contract.

In 2002, the Dallas school district did not renew its contracts with CEP, citing contract irregularities, and in 2010 Philadelphia also ended its contract. The city decided to end the contract because of budget cuts, Richardson says.

Whether or not CEP facilities contributed to dropout rates remains a subject of dispute particularly in Houston, where CEP had two large facilities (one closed in 2011). Official state statistics suggest that CEP’s Houston schools had a dropout rate that is below the state average. But Dr. Robert Kimball, a former Houston Independent School District Administrator, published a 2007 study that alleged the opposite. Focusing on graduation data, Kimball’s study alleged that of a group of students who entered a CEP facility in Houston in 2004, 90 percent percent could not be found two years later – they either dropped out or transferred to another district. Only 1 percent had definitely graduated. CEP later sued Kimball on the grounds that his comments hurt its business. The two sides reached a confidential settlement in 2011. Following the lawsuit, Richardson says, “a third party evaluator found well over 90 percent of the thousands of students served by CEP were still in HISD or another school district after leaving CEP.”

Camelot, the new operator of CEP’s former school, says it will be implementing a new approach in Houston. A spokesman, Kirk Dorn, cited Camelot’s previous track record of turning around schools and producing results. “We lean more on a teacher’s teaching than computer-based learning,” he said

“We’ve been doing this for 15 years,” Richardson said. “We accomplished what we set out to do. We decided it made financial sense to sell the contract,” he added.

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