May 19, 2004 News & Features » Cover Story


Pass or Fail 

Richmond Public Schools are struggling to reach disruptive students and poor performers. Is outsourcing their problem to a private company an innovative solution or a high-priced mistake?

The boys off the bus are lined up, their adolescent fingers pulling pants pockets inside out. Empty.

“Come on, come on,” says Raul Berrios, a former juvenile probation officer, his fingers fluttering, hustling the line along. He clinks his ring against a small bottle of juice held out by one boy.

“It's glass,” Berrios says.

“It's not gonna break or anything,” the boy promises.

“It's glass,” Berrios repeats. “You can't take it in.” The bottle goes.

The boys take off their shoes and walk sock-footed through a metal detector. They untuck their bright blue polo shirts so gloved hands can pat their bodies down, from collar to socks.

There are no weapons. Not even pencils.

School is in session. “Future inmates,” one boy cracks to a visitor. A few classmates snicker.

But this is no joke. With chronic disruptions and poor performance, these middle- and high-school pupils in Orange County, Fla., have worn out their welcome at school. So they've been sent here, to an alternative school in Orlando, where their futures depend on them getting their behavior — and education — back on track.

To help, the Orange County Public Schools are forking over $8,462 per pupil — $11 million in all — to a private, for-profit company from Nashville. It's called Community Education Partners.

Wherever it goes, CEP causes a stir. Some laud the program as an innovative success story. Others condemn it as expensive warehousing.

Critics also have charged that CEP puts a private company where it doesn't belong, that it takes advantage of struggling, urban school districts, and that its outsourcing arrangements — in such cities as Houston, Philadelphia and Atlanta — bring the worst-behaving kids together in a potential powder keg.

Now CEP is causing a stir in Richmond.

For months, Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman, whose district is desperate to conquer violence, truancy and poor performers, has had her eye on CEP. In March, behind the scenes, she explored hiring the company here.

But as word started to spread about Jewell-Sherman's level of interest in the company, a flurry of confusion, skepticism and misinformation followed. Some teachers, School Board members and even the state NAACP felt left in the dark.

Like most public school systems, Richmond loses pupils from one grade to the next. They move, are held back, transfer to private schools — or, more commonly, drop out. Graduation rates don't tell the whole story, because they typically measure the percentage of graduating students who started the year as seniors.

Instead, it is revealing to look at the number of pupils who leak out of the system over time. The eighth grade is nearly always larger than the senior class. This year, for example, eighth-grade enrollment is 1,786. Twelfth-grade enrollment is 1,105. That's a 38 percent difference — a sort of disappearing act for nearly 700 young men and women.

Many of those students will be left without high school degrees. They return to families where there's little support. They get into trouble.

“It's just a dreadful situation,” says Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, of the violence, crime and family instability faced by such youth.

Last year, the School Board — with six of its nine members having been newly elected to terms in January — discovered that schools were playing a big role in the disappearing act too. Out-of-school suspension rates, presented during the board's February 2003 retreat, were alarming to some.

In a school system of 25,241 (pre-kindergarten to high school), there were 14,039 out-of-school suspensions during the 2001-2002 school year. The figure includes repeat offenders. The following year, schools issued 14,459 out-of-school suspensions.

Board member Charles H. Nance recalls, “I just went home shocked, saying, This is not acceptable.”

Among the most typical causes were disruptive conduct, fighting, defiance, profanity, abusive language and unexcused absences or tardiness.

Board member Carol A.O. Wolf blames the high numbers in part on the schools' zero-tolerance policy for violations of conduct rules. She says the previous board's approach was to “punish the child instead of educate the child.”

In the current school year, things seem to be settling slightly, at least by the numbers. Through April 19, the school system had reported 9,895 out-of-school suspensions, according to school records. But some schools — such as Albert H. Hill Middle, Chandler Middle, G.H. Reid Elementary, Westover Hills Elementary and John Marshall High — already had surpassed their previous year's out-of-school suspensions.

Not much good can happen out of school, Wolf says. “We're giving gangs warm bodies,” she says. “We're giving them angry, alienated, warm bodies.”

Still, violence was a problem within the schools as well. Teachers complained that discipline problems were hurting their ability to teach. Parents were calling for action.

To deal with the issue, the superintendent convened a Task Force for Safe and Nurturing Schools in January 2003, made up of more than 50 school, community and social-services representatives. Board member Wolf says she secured free help from the Hamilton Fish Institute on School and Community Violence in Washington, D.C.

Now some people are wondering about the point of the task force, which reported throughout the year and presented its final report in February 2004.

What happened? “We presented it,” says Vashti Mallory-Minor, president of the local teachers' union, the Richmond Education Association.

That was about it, Mallory-Minor says. “I can't tell you any portions of that report that the administration is considering.”

The task force's alternative school committee presented its ideas Dec. 5, 2003. In the case of its recommendations, Wolf says, “It was a waste of everyone's time” if the superintendent had already reached her own conclusions about alternative schools.

In a special School Board meeting Jan. 31, Jewell-Sherman discussed the conclusions of the task force, according to school board minutes. The committee that focused on alternative education recommended expanding the existing programs.

These included centralizing Educare, a school that provides remediation, behavior modification and guidance to expelled students, and Bridge, a single-staffed resource for students returning to school from juvenile detention. The committee also recommended expanding the Richmond Acceleration Program, or RAP, for suspended pupils with disruptive behavior.

The report did not mention CEP nor any outsourcing firm, but minutes reflect that Jewell-Sherman noted during the presentation that CEP was a “model/option.” She said the division was reviewing the program.

“When I first heard about it,” says board member R.M. “Reggie” Malone, “I said, Whoa! What did we spend a year on Safe and Nurturing Schools for?”

Board members had questions, and asked for more information. But there was no discussion that involved the public — and no vote. Information was limited, Mallory-Minor says. “I don't recall any real School Board discussions about CEP, or an alternative school, or where it would be.”

But Jewell-Sherman was familiar with the company.

Two months earlier, according to travel records provided by Richmond Public Schools, Jewell-Sherman had visited one of CEP's Philadelphia schools with Yvonne Brandon, associate superintendent for instruction and accountability, and Frank Butts, retired principal of John F. Kennedy High School, and coordinator of health and physical education for Richmond schools. They spent a combined $1,108.10 on the Nov. 24 trip. Jewell-Sherman must have seen something she liked.

By Feb. 24, 2004, about $1.5 million was added to the school system's proposed budget for an alternative school for the 2004-05 school year. Existing alternative schools Educare and Bridge — with combined costs of $886,679, a total staff of 17 and a current combined enrollment of 123 — were zeroed out of the budget.

“So that was pretty troubling,” recalls the NAACP's Khalfani, who had once been a volunteer for Educare. He wondered whether the programs had even been assessed as ineffective. Some teachers at the programs started wondering about their jobs.

Lawrence Woodson, principal of Educare, who served as chairman of the task force's alternative school committee, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Word started to spread about Jewell-Sherman's level of interest in CEP.

By mid-March, CEP had enlisted former Virginia State Board of Education president Kirk T. Schroder, of law firm Schroder Fidlow, to be a local adviser and lobbyist. And by late March, the superintendent was on track to hire CEP, according to interviews with CEP officials and e-mails obtained by Style through Virginia's Freedom of Information Act.

In a March 24 e-mail, Jewell-Sherman thanks a CEP executive for a comparison he provided of CEP with three competitors at her request. The executive notes that he enjoyed talking with her in an earlier conference call.

Jewell-Sherman replies, “I'm going to forward this to our attorney in hopes that it will provide the supportive documentation to get the ‘sole source letter.'”

If a vendor meets certain conditions of the Virginia law — generally, by proving that it is the only practical, competitively priced, available product or service that meets the agency's needs — it qualifies as a sole-source provider. That means public bodies may hire it without opening a competitive bidding process.

It's unclear whether School Board attorneys considered CEP to have met the sole-source requirements. But sometime between the March 24 e-mail and April 2, school administrators opened the bidding process. They quietly drafted a request for proposals from vendors to run an alternative school program.

It was suddenly issued on April 13.

Some teachers, School Board members, the NAACP's Khalfani and others started raising questions about CEP, the superintendent's dealings with the company, her method of introducing its concept here and her reluctance to discuss her plans in depth.

Jewell-Sherman even surprised CEP itself.

CEP's consultant, Schroder, was scheduled to meet at a local diner with two school board members to discuss CEP. But he had to cancel the meeting upon learning that the request for bids had been issued. The law bans bidders from discussing their bids until a decision is made.

For local education interests, the request for proposals only created more unknowns. CEP was unable to discuss itself, and the administration seemed unwilling to talk. “There are so many questions that we don't have answers to because the administration is so closed-mouthed about what is going on,” the education association's Mallory-Minor says.

“If there's a program that's going to be good and work, we'd be supportive of that,” Khalfani says. But there was no way to know. “If it's in the open, then we know what we're working with,” he says. “And then the superintendent could have support.”

As for Richmond Public Schools, board member Wolf says, “The biggest problem has been this culture of secrecy.”

Through a spokeswoman, Jewell-Sherman turned down an April 13 request for an interview about alternative schools. When Style asked again, she declined by letter, writing April 16: “When the process is completed, I will be more than willing to discuss the matter with you and any other member of the media. ... I am not willing to engage in a conversation that may adversely affect the process.”

So what is CEP?

Look to Orlando, where Winter Hodge, a tall, brown-haired, 18-year-old senior is on her way out of the South East CEP school. She stops out front, smiling in the sunshine, with her mom and a young cousin.

They've been at a CEP graduation lunch this afternoon.

Hodge wasn't always smiling about school. At her neighborhood school, she spent less time learning and more time skipping, says her mom, Vickie Russum: “When she was at school, I didn't know where she was at.”

At CEP, Russum knew most everything. Someone from the school would call Russum at least once a week — if she didn't call them first. The school also held monthly meetings with parents.

At the beginning of the year, Hodge hated CEP. She'd go home every day, she says, begging her mom, “Please take me out of here.”

Mom didn't budge. “She couldn't socialize, is what the problem was,” Russum says. Eventually the program started clicking — especially the teachers, Hodge says, who “pay attention.” One of them gave her a book today: “Checklist for Life for Graduates.”

Of her year at CEP, Hodge says, “I knew it would end, good or bad.” It ended good. She'll return to her home school later this month to graduate with her friends. Then she'll head to a community college May 25.

Her mom beams, saying, “It was the best thing that ever happened to her.”

CEP has such success stories, Chief Executive Randle Richardson says in a Tennessee twang, because it isn't focused on punishment. Instead, it pushes educational results. It is “an educational and behavioral intervention program,” he says. As teachers recognize, bad behavior and poor performance usually go hand-in-hand.

Richardson, 53, seems comfortable in a blue blazer — he scrambled to put his on before his picture was taken. He comes from the world of politics, government and law.

He grew up in Alamo, Tenn., where his father farmed — still does, at 83. He ran the largest low-income, rural housing program in Tennessee, served as chairman of the state's Republican Party and worked under then-governor Lamar Alexander, who went on to become U.S. secretary of education and is now a senator. Richardson calls himself a “Howard Baker Republican.”

He is at ease throwing out such corporate jargon as “maximize management” — not surprising, because CEP takes cues from the business world, such as guarantees. CEP contracts are tied to performance, and if students don't advance one grade level in reading or math in 120 days, CEP will continue to educate them for free.

The roots of the CEP concept grew in Richardson's mind, he says, during a walk with a mentor in Williamsburg in 1994. He thought about problems facing school systems — safety, high dropout rates and lagging skills.

Richardson realized that most public schools were paying little attention to alternative schools, which refer to a variety of specialized programs that address specific needs of students. He decided he could do it better by creating partnerships between the public and private sectors, combining the strengths of both.

In 1996, Richardson founded CEP with, among other people, an educational software company executive. Money comes from investment banking firms as well as individual investors, such as Thomas Beaseley, who founded a private corrections company.

One of CEP's former executives, John Danielson, served as chief of staff for U.S. Department of Education Secretary Rod Paige, helping him implement the No Child Left Behind Act. (Danielson resigned Oct. 10.)

Paige, incidentally, gave CEP its first job. As superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, he signed CEP to a one-year contract in 1997. It was renewed, and the system then signed a five-year, $17.9 million contract with the company to serve 1,600 students. Last week, the Houston district signed on for another five years.

Richardson's political connections have helped in Florida too. Paige recommended CEP to the Orange County schools superintendent, according to a report in the Orlando Sentinel. The two Orlando schools, which hold 650 students each, are two years old. And two other Florida districts plan to open CEP schools by January.

In Philadelphia, officials are happy with the program. According to the school system, 86 percent of students who went to a CEP school returned to their home schools during the 2002-03 year. And 81 percent were promoted or graduated.

Still, the increasing numbers of students sent to Philadelphia's alternative schools — up 700 in the last school year to more than 2,700 students — bothers critics who call the referrals a “blanket approach,” according to a February story in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook. CEP says Philadelphia has decided to add a third CEP school — and renew its five-year contract.

But two school systems have moved away from CEP: Pasadena, Texas — which said it was pleased with CEP but always intended to move the program in-house — and Dallas, where a new superintendent discontinued the $6 million program.

“We felt we could do the very same level of work with the kids as they were doing, without the added costs,” says Dallas schools spokesman Donald Claxton. He says the schools didn't feel like they were getting a return on their investment.

Richardson charges a premium price, he says, which varies according to the locality. (He didn't release the amount of his bid for Richmond). But he contends that it's worth the money adding that school systems spend more for at-risk pupils who repeat grades, or already attend an alternative program.

Richardson says he asks school districts, “What is the cost of this child, really?”

The motto: “Be here. Behave. Be Learning.”

What happens inside a CEP school like the one in Orlando is the result of discipline, specialized education, social services — and architecture.

Off South Semoran Boulevard, about four miles from the Orlando International Airport, a sign is the only clue that this white, 60,000-square-foot building is a school. CEP gutted the inside of a Scotty's discount hardware store and turned it into a near duplicate of its other schools.

Inside, the place is as structured as a beehive, and the honeycomblike spaces where students spend their time seem to reflect serious purpose. There are no hallways with lockers where students can linger. Instead, no more than 100 pupils — and 10 staffers — stay in “communities” separated by gender.

In each community, there is a common area, from which four classrooms extend. A community leader and resource specialist hover in each common area. A teacher and an aide are assigned per classroom, each with its own bathroom. Pupils, divided into four groups, rotate among 90-minute classes.

There are only the basics: English and math, along with social studies, science and economics, and a skills lab that helps with reading and math remediation and other life skills. And local social-service agencies are provided space in the building.

Having no extracurricular activities can be rough, says Chris, a 6-foot junior with cornrows who turns 18 next month. The biggest thing he misses: “Playing sports.”

Still, he says, he's made progress, and he points out his picture on a bulletin board. He's student of the month. “You learn better,” he says, “because you're with people you can work with.” The teachers don't just give it to you, he says. They explain.

Soon he'll be back at his home school, he says, back to football and baseball. He'll take better grades and conduct with him, he says. And “a good attitude.”

Some pupils have a different attitude, like Suheily, a girl with her hair pulled back in a blue scrunchie, who has been here two weeks.

“I hate it,” she says, during lunch in her community area. “Teachers don't teach,” she says. And because school doesn't start until 10:15 a.m. — CEP believes normal schools start too early for kids to be effective — the day ends at 4:45 p.m. She says she doesn't get home until 8, which leaves little time for an after-school job.

Other girls at the table chime in with complaints.

“The only thing good about this school is that you get nine credits,” Monique says. And without boys around, she adds, girls get in too many fights.

Autumn, in ninth grade, misses her cell phone, jewelry and lip gloss — all banned. “Stuff that every girl needs, or wants,” she says — “you can't bring in the simple stuff.”

“They should be changing to go back” to their home schools, says Deana Costner, CEP's regional vice president. Costner, who has been listening nearby, is a 30-year veteran of the Orange County schools and former teacher of the year. She was about to retire before CEP recruited her to run its new Orlando schools in 2002.

Students aren't supposed to love CEP enough to settle in, Costner says. They're supposed to focus on the individual academic, attendance and behavior plans set up for them during orientation. They're supposed to bond with the students in their communities. They're supposed to return to their home schools, having left their bad habits behind.

Students who are admitted to their program performing at grade level may stay for short-term periods, but others must stay the entire school year — the most oft-repeated criticism of the school. The company says it just takes time to catch students up.

“From the structure that I saw there, the children seemed that they were safe,” says Richmond School Board member Gail M. Townes. “They were able to concentrate more so on what they needed to do to get their education done.”

Townes, along with board member Joan T. Mimms, toured one of CEP's Orlando schools during the National Association of School Boards conference in that city from Feb. 25 to March 1. Without naming CEP, they raved about their visit during a May 3 School Board meeting, before the superintendent warned they were being too specific in the middle of the bidding process.

(In a March 29 e-mail obtained by Style, CEP's senior vice president for marketing and business development, Robert Essink, referred to the visit. “The tour of our school with Ms. Mimms and Ms. Townes went very well,” he wrote Jewell-Sherman. “I am sure they will brief you upon their return to Richmond.”)

For the pupils who attend CEP, Mimms said at the board meeting, “It's not the last chance, but another chance.”

In a brief report during a School Board meeting May 3, Jewell-Sherman discussed the importance of having an alternative school in place to go forward with the much-discussed, emotionally charged merger of Armstrong and Kennedy high schools.

“The consolidations that we have spent so much time this year working on are dependent upon us having an alternative school,” she said. “Let there be no question.”

But the lengthy, behind-the-scenes process to hire CEP may have jeopardized all that.

In Orlando — which has the CEP schools most similar to what would be in Richmond, Chief Executive Richardson says — school is out in a week, leaving little time for site visits. Besides that, Richardson says it takes about nine months to set up one of his schools — at least, to do it the right way. And there are only four months until September rolls around, leaving the merger — and the existing alternative school staffs — in limbo.

And still, there are questions.

“Sometimes we just don't do things as well in the public sector that the private sector does,” says Nance. “And I haven't decided which one is best in this case.”

“There are so many unknowns that we can't support this,” Mallory-Minor says.

“Everyone agrees that we need alternative settings,” board member R.M. “Reggie” Malone says. But he'd prefer to take on the issue internally, rather than hire an outside company. Unfortunately, he says, “we don't have the will to do it.”

After declining an interview a second time, Jewell-Sherman called Style as this story was going to press May 14, leaving a message that she would be willing to discuss the alternative school situation in general.

She was unreachable by press time, but in her April letter declining an interview, Jewell-Sherman wrote:

“There are members of the school board, staff, teacher association and community who have differing ideas about alternative schools for a variety of reasons. We do have one common viewpoint; that is, we must have an alternative school for our students.

“Going outside of our school district for expertise on any issue is anathema to some. My quest is to find the best option for these students, whose behavior, life problems, and other extenuating circumstances cause them to be among our most challenged young people.”

Would CEP save Richmond Public Schools? Maybe not, Richardson says. “But it will save kids.”

At the end of the day Wednesday, CEP bus No. 11 pulls up outside the door where middle school boys will exit. Through the halls, staffers are stationed to see that the pupils are off and running.

Berrios, a learning community assistant, is hustling boys the other way this time, calling for them on his walkie-talkie. Most hurry to leave, keeping their hands in their pockets as they are instructed to do when walking through the school hallway. “Fix your shirt,” he reminds them, again and again. They tuck in.

The boys proceed from Berrios to Carlos Loran, the assistant principal in charge of transportation, enrollment and truancy. Loran, a former hospital administrator and retired colonel in the Army Reserve, has the first face they see in the morning, the last they see in the afternoon.

“Have a good evening, gentlemen,” he says. There's not much time for him to talk. He must make sure he sends the kids off right: “Accurately,” he says, “and nobody left behind.” S

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