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CEP mystery: many pass through … and then?

The company’s three discipline schools have served over 10,000 students here, but its public reporting accounts for only a tiny fraction of them.

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

The for-profit school manager in Philadelphia with the biggest contract, the longest tenure, and the most difficult mandate is also among the least scrutinized – Community Education Partners, which operates three schools in the city for disruptive youth.

CEP, a Nashville-based corporation, gets $28.1 million a year to educate some 2,000 to 3,000 students at a time who are referred for serious disciplinary infractions. That is more than three times the $8.7 million total for all other alternative school operators, and more than the $20 million paid to all the School District’s education management organizations (EMOs) combined.

Since the first Philadelphia CEP school opened in 2000, more than 10,000 troubled students, including some returning from incarceration, have cycled through its no-nonsense, highly-structured program, according to the company’s data.

The high numbers reflect the growing clamor from state legislators, teachers and the public to remove unruly and violence-prone students from regular city schools. “The greatest public pressure I get is on discipline,” said School District CEO Paul Vallas. “What the legislature wants, what City Council wants, what the public wants is one thing: get them out.”

As this clamor has intensified, the main beneficiaries have been private companies like CEP that over the past decade have moved rapidly into the discipline school business in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Since Vallas came here four years ago, Philadelphia has entirely outsourced its discipline schools to CEP and three other organizations and companies.

Since 1999, when it authorized districts to hire private companies to run discipline schools, the Pennsylvania legislature has sent tens of millions of dollars a year to Philadelphia to help pay for them. And the industry has steadily grown – despite limited evidence that the outside providers are significantly improving the educational attainment and life chances of most of the students who attend their schools.

Almost all that money is funneled through the state Republican caucus to a handful of urban districts, with little systematic oversight by the state Department of Education.

Officials of the Rendell administration acknowledge that discipline is a tough issue and are glad the legislature is providing money for it. However, they say not enough information is being provided to adequately judge the programs’ effectiveness.

“It’s amazing that they’re willing to spend [this] money on kids, but it’s sad they don’t hold vendors accountable,” said Donna Cooper, Governor Rendell’s policy chief. “We have no data. It’s a frustrating thing. We’re not happy.”

In Pennsylvania, CEP’s mandate is to take these problematic students for a year – fifth through 12th graders – and improve their attendance, skills and behaviors so they can return to their home schools able to learn and ultimately graduate.

While CEP has tracked students who did well at CEP and went back to their neighborhood schools, no comprehensive reports are available on what happens to CEP’s students who don’t make that successful transition, which appears to be the overwhelming majority.

But by piecing together data provided by the District and available through a study done by Temple University, it seems that, among the thousands who have attended CEP, there are about 500 who successfully completed CEP’s program, went back to their home school, and proceeded to graduation. That figure also includes 146 who graduated in June from CEP itself.

To be transferred back to a neighborhood school, a student has to maintain a 90 percent attendance rate, pass all courses and keep a clean behavioral record, fulfilling the company’s mantra of “Be Here, Behave, and Be Learning.”

Despite repeated requests, however, neither the District nor the company provided statistics indicating what percentage of CEP students met those standards and went back to their home schools.

CEP did provide information showing that, based on in-house computerized testing, the average CEP student advances between three and five grade levels within one year in math and reading. It also provided data showing that the student attendance rate is around 75 percent, about the same as neighborhood high schools.

District officials said that the data tell them what they need to know: private firms are doing far better than the District ever did with its old discipline schools. Vallas called the old District-run schools “unmitigated disasters” with zero graduation rates, 50 percent attendance and “pitiful” test scores.

“I am absolutely convinced, and the data proves it, that we cannot manage these programs effectively in-house,” he said. “Public schools don’t do alternative discipline schools right. Private providers are better. Period.”

Barbara Braman, a former District principal and administrator who is now a senior vice president with CEP, said that in the company’s early days, most of the students were in middle school, so the graduation statistics are less meaningful than data showing that CEP has succeeded in substantially raising their grade level skills.

Keeping these students in school and improving their achievement is a daunting task, Braman said. The typical student arrives at CEP with third- or fourth-grade skills, so even advancing them by four or five grades will not necessarily get them to high-school achievement levels. On top of that, she said, “they are coming with behavioral health issues, an incredible array of needs. They are an underserved and under-seen population.” She acknowledged that future studies should try to determine what ultimately happens to the majority of CEP students.

“Can we do it better? You bet, but is what we’re doing materially better than what we had in the District? You bet,” Braman said, choking up. “We’re saving lives. Kids say to us every day, thank you, if I weren’t in this school, I think I’d be dead.”

While CEP came to Philadelphia essentially offering a money-back guarantee if student attendance and achievement didn’t meet certain benchmarks, the performance aspects of CEP’s contracts have been watered down since then.

In its early contracts, it got paid only for the days students actually attended and could earn bonuses for substantially improving a student’s attendance, but in the 2004 renewal, the attendance incentives were dropped.

Now the company has an unusual funding formula – it gets paid based on its building capacity, not the number of students enrolled or attending.

In the earlier contract, the company also agreed to educate free of charge any student who didn’t make at least one grade level of improvement in reading and math within a year. The 2001 contract said that target would be increased in subsequent contracts, but it never was, despite company data showing that students who stay for 180 days increase their skills by multiple grade levels.

Vallas said that although the District is outsourcing all its alternative schools, it has sought different models. It has also hired three other providers to run discipline schools.

While some have called CEP’s model prison-like, school and company officials have described it more as a structured private school. The company has invested millions in refurbishing buildings to fit its model, which is highly controlled. Students are subject to metal detectors and pat-downs when entering, including the removal of their shoes.

The buildings have no windows to limit distraction and are divided into learning communities of four classrooms surrounding a common area, to which each class has a supervised rotation for meals.

Vallas said the District wants to create more transition schools for overage students that are less restrictive and will be a more permanent placement. He said many students don’t want to return to their neighborhood schools from CEP, and that the legislature’s mandate that a student must go back to their home school after a year could be causing problems.

CEP has just been awarded an additional $4.5 million annual contract to expand a school for overage, underachieving students.

“We are trying to identify other programs that can service our kids,” Vallas said.