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With boom in ‘alternative’ schools, questions raised about their impact

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

The District continues to make disciplinary transfers of large numbers of students into alternative schools, and the number of slots in alternative schools will be increasing next year from 2,800 to 3,750, according to District CEO Paul Vallas.

District officials say that in September at least six different providers will be managing alternative schools – which serve students who have committed serious violations of the Code of Student Conduct, overage students, and those returning from court-ordered placements.

A proposed contract with the largest private manager of alternative schools here has drawn criticism from child advocates who say the public should first receive more information about what happens to the students transferred to these schools.

Community Education Partners (CEP), a for-profit manager of discipline schools, already serves a total of 1,750 public school students at three different sites in Philadelphia.

In May, District officials announced plans for a five-year contract with CEP to serve 2,150 students at an annual cost to the School District of $28 million.

The cost of CEP’s services per student is about $14,000, substantially more than the $9,600 per student spent at District-run schools. The difference is picked up by the state through a $10 million grant for alternative schools.

At a School Reform Commission (SRC) meeting in May, speakers from the Education Law Center and Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth questioned the decision to expand CEP’s contract without comprehensive, independent data about the program. They argued that the contract renewal should await a detailed analysis to be completed soon by researchers at Temple University.

“It is important to know whether CEP’s model is more successful with some categories of children than others,” Len Rieser, co-director of the Education Law Center, told the SRC. “It is important to know… how long students stay at CEP and what their experience is, in terms of behavior and achievement, when they return to regular schools.”

CEO Vallas responded that the District knows enough about CEP’s performance to renew the contract. “The test scores demonstrate the effectiveness of their program,” Vallas maintained.

School Reform Commission member Sandra Dungee Glenn observed that historically the District has not done well in serving students with behavioral problems. “CEP’s performance to date appears to be a significant improvement over the past work with that group of students,” she said.

The District provided performance data to the SRC and distributed a one-page summary of data on May 19, showing that CEP’s average daily attendance of 71 percent exceeded the rate in District-run alternative schools. The summary reported improved scores on most TerraNova tests in grades 6-10 and “educationally meaningful” gains among CEP 11th graders on PSSA tests.

But the data distributed by the District omitted the PSSA 8th grade scores and the 9th grade writing scores, which are less flattering. State reports show CEP’s 8th grade PSSA scores dropped in both reading and math between 2002 and 2003, with only 1 percent of CEP 8th graders scoring Basic or above on the 2003 PSSA math exam.

CEP’s 9th grade writing scores for 2002-03 also dropped significantly from the prior year.

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