November 28 — 12:00 am, 2002

CEP: City’s largest disciplinary school adds more students

In recent months, hundreds of students have been pouring into Philadelphia’s alternative discipline programs. The growth in these schools this year reflects District CEO Paul Vallas’s hard-line approach to dealing with students considered to pose serious discipline problems.

More stringent school discipline policies have been fueled by an ongoing legislative probe alleging lax enforcement of discipline infractions, a continuing high rate of violent incidents in schools, and a recently enacted state law (Act 88) that requires students returning from juvenile justice placements to attend a transition program and an alternative school before reentering regular classrooms.

The District’s leading choice for educating students who are ex-offenders or charged with serious violations of the discipline code is Community Education Partners (CEP), the Tennessee-based for-profit company that currently manages two schools in Philadelphia.

The newer of the two schools, which opened this fall at 12th St. and Allegheny Ave., serves students who are ex-offenders, primarily those coming out of juvenile placements. The older and larger school, at Front St. and Hunting Park Ave., now serves about 1,200 students who have been transferred out of their regular school – or in some cases expelled from the District – for behavior problems including violence and disruption.

According to District financial analysts, CEP is currently receiving approximately $13,900 annually per student (or $77 per day) at its schools. CEP officials say the cost is well below the District’s cost to educate students in its other three discipline schools; teachers at CEP are CEP employees and not on the union salary scale.

This fall, CEP’s contract was amended, giving the company a $7.9 million boost to create 800 additional slots. Enrollment at the CEP schools in late November totaled 1,422 students. Included in the contract is an accountability clause that requires CEP students to show academic improvement and regular attendance, or the District withholds payment.

The typical student entering a CEP school is failing three or more subjects, was suspended three or more times, and had a poor attendance record at his or her neighborhood school. Students range in ages from 12 to16 and typically stay at the school for a duration of 182 days. The company reports that on average about three-fourths of the students attend daily, similar to the attendance rates at neighborhood high schools, but higher than the District’s three other alternative discipline schools (Boone, Miller, and Shallcross).

The student population at the CEP schools is overwhelmingly male, with a higher percentage of African American and Latino students than the District average. Approximately 95 percent of students come from low-income backgrounds.

Restrictive environment

The learning environment at the CEP is very restrictive. When entering the buildings, students are subject to metal detectors and pat-downs, including the removal of their shoes. Students walk the halls in single file, hands to the side, in matching shirts bearing the CEP name.

The physical design of the larger CEP school on Front St. is in line with CEP’s highly touted model. The school is divided into learning communities of four classrooms surrounding a common area. Each class has supervised rotations to the common area for meals, among different classrooms within the learning community, and to physical education class.

Although critics of CEP charge that the school environment resembles a juvenile detention center, Ron Cage, principal for the newer of the CEP schools, defends the program.

"We are talking about a population of students that throughout most of their lives have been in school and home environments that have had very little structure and order. We try to create an environment that is safe and orderly, set high expectations for these young people, and we do everything in our power to make sure they live up to those expectations," says Cage. "I would characterize our school environment as more like a private school, certainly not like a prison."

CEP administrators report that its highly structured environment and behavioral supports are vital to providing a safe learning environment. The company claims that 89 percent of students were not involved in any serious incidents in the past year, and visitors to the site report that it is orderly.

The school, however, did report 116 serious and violent incidents in 2001-02, leading to 70 arrests, according to figures from the Office of Safe Schools Advocate. The arrest figure was higher than all but one of the city’s large neighborhood high schools.

The company provides behavioral supports for students and now has a large contract with Community Behavioral Health to provide students with case managers, drug and alcohol treatment, psychologists, a pregnancy prevention program, and conflict mediation programs.

"We foster a learning environment for students where they can be successful by using sound educational practices," says Cage. "Students help to create their learning plans and goals, we have small classes, learning and behavior incentives, and a curriculum based on direct instruction and small group work that is supported by technology."

Early data

The company boasts of a strong record of academic improvement. CEP officials say that 85 percent of students passed three or more classes that they failed the previous year and jumped up at least one grade level in reading and math over a year’s time. Student achievement levels are tested using the computer-based Basic Skills Benchmark Assessment that CEP officials say is aligned with the PSSA and SAT-9. Thus far, however, no independent evaluations have been conducted on the company’s academic track record.

CEP staff say more data on student outcomes will be available soon, explaining that until recently, few CEP students had been at the school long enough to transition back into a regular school environment.

School District staff note that CEP’s program may not be the best option for all students.

"We know that there are some kids whose needs need to be met in a different way," says Gwen Morris, who directs alternative discipline programs for the District. "For example, older kids want to finish school but have other needs to be met around job training. That’s an option we don’t have in our alternative schools. You get the core curriculum, but there aren’t the opportunities to go into some of the vocational/technical fields."

Morris said the District also needs different alternative programs for children with mental retardation.

Opposing arguments

In Houston, Texas, CEP has had to battle vocal critics who allege rising per-pupil costs, grade falsification, and purposely depressed test scores among incoming students that have made it easier to meet the contract’s requirement for improved student performance. CEP denies these allegations. No such accusations have surfaced about CEP’s Philadelphia schools.

Some parents and advocates in Philadelphia are expressing alarm about the stepped up transfers and expulsions to disciplinary schools resulting from the District’s zero tolerance policies, which eliminate any discretion at the school level in responding to serious incidents. Also, child advocacy groups have filed a lawsuit challenging Act 88, the state law targeting Philadelphia that has provided CEP with over 200 of its students – those coming out of the juvenile justice system.

But as the District struggles with the difficult issue of dealing with classroom disruption and troubled students, CEP appears to many to be a positive solution.

"For students who are struggling, CEP is an alternative," Gwen Morris states. "It’s not for every kid; it’s not a perfect fit. There are some kids who go to CEP, and their parents don’t like it. There are some kids who go to CEP, and their parents rave about it. It’s an alternative. It’s an option we have in the District."

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