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Event Transcript
January 11, 2000

A Successful Initiative for Educating At-Risk Students

MS. DIANE RAVITCH: If one looks at the educational data for students in Houston and New York, one notices that the two cities have a very similar profile. With both cities, the ninth grade has become what is called 'the parking lot.' Kids get into the ninth grade, but they cannot read, they cannot write and they cannot do mathematics. They fail, and they drop out. The Houston data tells the story of 'the parking lot': out of 107,000 students that enter the ninth grade, there are only 38,000 left by the time graduation roles around.

The figure that is commonly used is that about 49 percent of the kids who start ninth grade actually get a diploma in four years. This is a number that I urge you to bear in mind, as it is very difficult to get objective data about education. Dropout rates fluctuate. You never know who is being counted, and who is being left out. Reading scores fluctuate depending on what test has been used. The one piece of information that can't be distorted is this: of the number of kids who start ninth grade, what percent get a diploma four years later?

These numbers are appalling. In Houston's case, it's about a third. If you look at first-timers to the ninth grade, however, it's actually about 48 percent, which is still below the national average. It's not dissimilar to other big city districts. We cannot be complacent about statistics like this: it simply should not be tolerable.

Today we seek new approaches in assuring that when a student progresses from eighth grade to ninth and so on, that that student is prepared. We want students to be able to get their diplomas in reasonable periods of time and to be ready to go out into the world.

Today we will discuss Houston's Community Education Partners (CEP) program, which Ms. Mary Butts and I first researched several years ago. The first thing about the CEP program is that it is not a high school. Many of the kids who are in the program are in high school, but CEP does not provide a 'high school' curriculum, per se. It's a program, though it is not a panacea. There are kids that they can't reach, but they have been able to succeed with the majority of kids who are sent to them.

Who are the kids that are involved in CEP? The students they get are young people who are behind academically for the most part. They are sometimes three, four even five years behind where they should be in reading and in math. There are also children who have very serious behavioral problems, though in many cases these problems stem back to their learning problems. Some of the students act out because they're desperate and frustrated from being so far behind.

There are children who are on the edge of incarceration, and CEP is the last hope for them. Most of the kids that they get have been suspended or expelled from other schools. CEP is their last, best hope to get back on track.

When Mary and I were doing the evaluation of CEP, we spent intensive time in the school talking to students and teachers. Mary visited the high schools that had been sending youngsters to CEP, and talked to the teachers there. She found that CEP has a very warm and cordial relationship with the Houston Federation of Teachers: Gail Fallon, the president of the HFT, is one of the strongest supporters of the program.

When Mary talked to teachers in the high schools that were sending the kids, she found that the teachers and principals felt relieved that there was a place that they could send children who were headed straight for dropping out. They saw CEP as an alternative to having these kids on the street, without hope.

The bottom line for CEP is that it works for most of the students who are referred there. They make remarkable increases in their test scores. This is because CEP is a highly individualized program. They perform a very intensive diagnostic when the kids first come in. The behavioral program is highly structured, and expectations are clear. The goals are set as small steps so the young people feel a sense of success, and realize that they are not in a hopeless situation. The students see that the adults running the CEP are people who want to get them back on track.

I would like to introduce Dr. Rod Paige and Dr. Mary Jane Pearson. Rod Paige is the superintendent of schools in Houston. He's done an impressive job in his work there -- they have been reforming this system over the past several years. Rod was first elected to the Houston School Board in 1990, and he was then re-elected in 1994.

When the Board needed a new superintendent they turned to one of their own, because they realized that the best educator was the one already in their midst. Rod was elected by his colleagues to be superintendent of schools, which he has been since 1994. His work there has brought him a great deal of recognition: in fact, he is currently 'superintendent of the year,' as chosen by the Council of Great City Schools. Let me introduce Dr. Rod Paige to you.

DR. ROD PAIGE: In 1994 I became superintendent of schools in the Houston independent school district. I didn't apply for that. I didn't come through the traditional superintendent's pipeline. All of a sudden somebody gave me the key to the superintendent's office. I thought about it for a minute, and then committed myself to one of the most awesome responsibilities that I've ever even considered.

We had a school district that most of the public in Houston had little confidence in. It was under funded, and had an image of being crime-ridden, unproductive and overstaffed in terms of administrators: all the things that you've heard about public school systems in major cities.

We committed ourselves to doing something about these problems. My colleagues and I began to put together some strategies that we thought would make the difference. We knew that we would have to get in the face of some people who were satisfied with the status quo: people who say "children first" but don't really mean it. We decided to take that slogan seriously, and truly make children first.

We made a lot of changes, most of which I won't be able to address right now, but I will talk about just one of the changes that's been rather productive for us.

We realized that never before in public education had we been asked to do so much: Never before had we been faced with such a diverse population of young people overwhelmed by poverty and social decay, and the lack of familiarity with the English language. We had drugs in our middle schools, crack babies: all of these issues that you know so much about here.

We identified some of the things that we would like to prioritize early on, and one of the things we knew is that in order to be successful you have to have an environment that is safe and conducive to teaching and learning.

By looking at our demographics, we soon discovered a statistical curiosity. We had more people in ninth grade than in first grade. That's the first problem. Why are so many more people in ninth grade than in first grade? Logically you would expect a straight line from first grade through to the ninth grade, perhaps with a slightly negative slope. Why was it that when our statistics hit the eighth grade, they spike up and then face a sharp decline through to graduation?

We had a lot of discussion about this. We learned that we allow people to exit eighth grade without mastering the concepts they need in order to be successful in ninth grade. These kids are just floating right along, without the mastery of the content that they need if they are to be successful in ninth grade. Once in high school, these students have to collect credits. What seems to happen, is that these students stack up at the ninth grade level, because the middle schools are pushing them up, while they are being held back from progressing to the tenth grade because they are unable academically to collect the number of credits they need. Here is where we get our dropouts.

We first tried to attack this problem by starting our own schools. We have what we call alternative schools, which are for ninth-graders. We tried to overcome the skill deficit there, but we found that it wasn't working and the cost was prohibitive. We were spending a lot of money, but getting nothing done. This was not because our teachers weren't trying: I believe our teachers are America's heroes. We were putting them into a situation, however, that they were not equipped to deal with. This was not their specialty. You can only be as good as you know how to be.

We took the same approach in solving this problem that we took for other problems: we looked around and said, "Who does this well?"

We identified Community Education Partners, got in contact with them, and discussed this problem. We could not be more pleased today that we did join hands with the community education partners in pursuit of sanity in our schools.

Our teachers are pleased because that small percentage of disruptive children is not going to keep the other children from learning. This group of 'disruptive' children usually fits into one of two categories: those who are two or more grade levels behind, or students who for other reasons just don't fit in with the teaching and learning environment.

Sometimes I get misinterpreted: we love all of the children and we want what is best for all the children. This desire required that we find an organization that could serve these children well. I think honesty demands that we admit that there are some children that are not well served by a conventional learning environment, and putting them there jeopardizes progress for everyone.

We joined hands with Community Education Partners, and the result has been our classrooms are calmer and our teachers are happier. The children are being better served. We found out that some of the children that were giving us the toughest time now have transformed themselves into productive students, because Community Education Partners is meeting their individual needs.

We were trying to meet their needs, but we simply were better at doing what we have been trained to do: teaching boys and girls to read and write. Our conventional approach works for the vast majority of students, but it doesn't work in every single case. There are exceptions that need to be served as well.

In conclusion, let me say that I am convinced that the public wants us to do this job well. At one point they may have walked off and left us, but we're beginning to see now that the public is coming back, and they are bringing their support. We recently passed a bond issue--something that we couldn't have done just a few years ago--and we are now proceeding with some new construction. We have the confidence of the people of Houston.

Things are beginning to turn around, but one thing is clear to us: we can't do everything. In the same way we see corporate America joining hands in order to broaden into new markets and new ways of doing things, in public education, we must find new partnerships if we are to be successful in areas where we have traditionally failed.

I'm a great admirer of Community Education Partners, and I'm pleased to be able to come here to this great city and say that.

MS. RAVITCH: As Superintendent Paige was talking, I was reminded that during one of the visits that I paid to the CEP school in Houston, I saw this adorable little kid who looked like he was ten, and I asked, "What are you doing here, son?" He answered, "Oh, I brought a gun to show and tell." He was working pretty intensively on his reading, so I think he must also have had some reading difficulties.

I want to introduce the academic director of CEP, Dr. Mary Jane Pearson. Mary Jane designed the program, and has been heading it up ever since it was first instituted. All of her efforts have been at great personal sacrifice, as well: she had to give up her tenure at the University of California, where she had been the California Educator of the Year. She did this because she has a very strong commitment to what the program is capable of accomplishing.

DR. MARY JANE PEARSON: The program I'm going to tell you about has as its goal the following: Safer schools and more manageable classrooms. We want to create a better environment so teachers can teach and students can learn in a less disruptive environment. This is really critical: we need to help the most low-achieving students get their behavior and learning back on track, so they can return to their sending school, ready to learn and follow the school rules. The success of this program is accomplished through a partnership with the school district, the teachers' union and the community.

With that introduction, I'd like you to get your primer out. We're going to be going through this book together, so I can highlight our points as we encounter them. If you'll turn the cover page to the first page, entitled "In America's Urban Schools."

Most everyone will agree that school safety is one of the critical issues faced by America's public schools. Most everyone will also agree that the low academic performance of America's schoolchildren is another critical issue faced by America's public schools. Hardly anyone, however, seems to realize that the two are inter-related.

Consider this: One out of every three middle and high school teachers report discipline as a major classroom problem. One third of our teachers. Twenty-five percent--a fourth--of the typical middle and high school teacher's day is spent dealing with the behavior of disruptive students.

One out of every three ninth-graders has been retained at least once. At CEP, of the students who have been sent for disruptive behavior, 89.6 percent have been retained at least once. Seventy-three percent of our entire student body has been retained at least once.

Approximately 50 percent of students enrolled in the ninth grade are not completing the ninth grade. This is the case in Houston, but, again, it is not unlike the case of Philadelphia, Detroit, or any other major urban area. In this particular graph, we have 18,236 ninth-graders; and a huge drop-off in graduation in 12th grade.

Another graph identifies the problem: We have students who get to the ninth grade who are not prepared to pass their courses. They get parked in ninth grade, because you have to earn credits to advance to tenth grade. You cannot be socially promoted. They cause disruptions: there are always two or three students in any given classroom whose presence effectively prevents teachers from doing their job.

If you turn to the next page, you will see the figures I quoted. There is a picture of the kids who have been retained at CEP. We serve sixth through 12th graders. You can see that the majority of our kids, 73 percent of our students, have been retained one to five years. Just go across the top and look at how many kids have been retained two or three years, and more.

Public schools are searching for an answer to the problem of this growing number of middle and high school students who are seriously disrupting their classrooms or engaging in violent acts while in school. Many of these students are also significantly behind their grade level.

There is a tremendous cost presented to the taxpayer by the problem of dropouts. When you take the number of students who drop out--who have been in school for ten years--and multiply that by the cost per year, you get a phenomenal figure that ends up being almost 200 million dollars lost over the life of these students.

We know what happens to the thousands of students who begin ninth grade, but never make it to graduation. They're likely to be unemployed, on public assistance or involved in crime. Seventy-nine percent of those in prison, 56 percent of those on public assistance and 55 percent of those unemployed for more than one year have one thing in common: they lack a high school diploma.

Superintendent Paige heads up the largest public school system in Texas, in the fourth largest city in the nation, with more than 3.8 million residents. Like other major urban school districts, the district's challenges are many. Houston Independent School District, "HISD," serves more than 210,000 students through 298 campuses and educational programs.

Approximately two-thirds of HISD students meet federal criteria for free and reduced lunch. Sixty primary languages other than English are spoken in the homes of HISD students, and about one-fourth of Houston students cannot speak English fluently. In Houston's public schools, there are no easy solutions.

During Superintendent Paige's five years at the helm of the public school district, HISD has become a leader in public education. They've led the way in contracting with private business for programs such as food service and maintenance.

When Dr. Paige was faced with the challenge of making schools safe and classrooms manageable, while at the same time meeting the unique needs of the disruptive and often low-achieving student, he wasn't afraid to step outside the box of traditional education to find his solutions. He knew that Houston schools are delivering on their mission for students who are there to learn and follow the rules. Dr. Paige did what he had done before: He looked for a strategic partnership.

He found that developing a partnership with a small, private education company was the best approach to solve these problems. That partnership is known as the HISD-CEP partnership. CEP has as its mission the accomplishment of one single goal: "to work in partnership with public schools and the community to get disruptive and low-performing students back on track."

The partnership is not aimed at changing the whole education system. CEP focuses on one discrete problem that is manageable and central to the problems faced by all schools.

The students served by CEP--the students sent to the Partnership schools in Houston--are sent from Houston's middle and high schools by the school principal. They are the violent and disruptive students, and they are also the low academic achievers.

To be successful at CEP, our students live by what we call "The Three Be's": be here (attend school); behave (follow the student code of conduct); and be learning (Attend school, earn credits, and pass your courses).

CEP's goals mirror "The Three Be's." When we set our goals, we hold ourselves to the same high standards as our students.

  • Be Here: We strive to increase attendance and students are attending at higher rates.
  • Behave: When we remove students from the sending schools and bring them to our school, the school that they have left is safer, and the classrooms are more manageable, so all the children can learn. When they get to our school, we don't just warehouse them. We have a program uniquely designed for these students, to get disruptive students back on track in terms of both learning and behavior. When they return to their sending school they will be ready to learn and follow the school rules. That's our mantra.
  • Be Learning: We have three simple goals. First, you have to accelerate learning in reading and math. Then, you can accelerate course credit and grade promotion, so you get out of that ninth grade parking lot. We work to improve our students basic skill sets so their test scores will improve and they will be able to take on the course work that awaits them at their sending schools.

CEP works within the school system, not outside it. We are partners with the superintendent and the school board. We are partners with the schools who send students, and we are partners with the teachers' union. We are partners with the community, and the parents of the students who come to the school.

The HISD-CEP partnership began three years ago with about 450 students in one school. Now, HISD contracts with CEP for 2500 students in two schools in Houston. The HIDS-CEP partnership schools, and the results they are attaining, are not going unnoticed.

The schools are safer in Houston: There was a 23 percent reduction in district-wide crime in year one of the Houston-CEP partnership. In the second year, there was an additional 26 percent reduction in district-wide crime: in year two of the partnership.

Administrators report that students return to their sending schools with their behavior under control. Teachers report that students return ready to learn and follow the school rules, better prepared to learn.

Our average grade level when kids come to us is eighth grade. The average days they're sent to us a year, the average days enrolled, was 152 days. This is based on data for more than 1000 students. Our average growth in reading was 2.4 grade levels in reading and almost the same in math: 2.2 grade levels.

This graph tracks the progress of students who attended a CEP school, and what their progress did to reduce the ninth grade spike and increase graduation rates simultaneously. The graph tells the story of ‘PT,’ a 15-year old ninth grader when he first entered CEP. He had skills at the first grade level in reading that he had not mastered, and he had skills in math at the third grade level. That's where we had to start with him. He was sent to CEP because of academic deficiency.

After PT had been in CEP for 324 days, he had made the following progress. Recall "The Three Be's":

    • Be here: PT's attendance was 97 percent. Typically these kids are coming to us attending way below that.
    • Behave: His behavior has improved tremendously.
    • Be learning: His reading grade level improvement was phenomenal: 7.5 grade levels. He has also made great strides in math: in a little more than a year, he had a 4.5 grade level improvement in math.

Since PT had not mastered all the skills at the first level, our primary focus when he entered CEP first had to be improving his reading skills. While at CEP, we accelerated PT's learning so that he could earn credits to become a tenth grader.

The average entry at CEP, based on these students, was eighth grade. They had skills to develop in reading at about the second grade. They had skills in math to develop at about the third grade. They were enrolled a little less, on average, than 180 days a year. In that period they attain the grade level gain that I reported earlier: a little more than two years in math, and about two and a half in reading. This is quite remarkable.

Let me quickly run through an outline of our unique program so you can understand exactly what we do. The CEP program is an intensive program of accelerated learning, designed to address students in grades six through twelve who are violent and disruptive, who are low academic achievers and students who are not earning course credit at a pace that will allow them to graduate on time. Performance is assessed based on basic skills tests, and many of these students are likely to drop out of school.

We start with a two-week orientation. Each student begins the CEP program in this class. We do academic and behavioral counseling during the orientation that we call "Create Your Path to Success." Each student has individualized academic and behavior plans.

Each student completes diagnostic testing during orientation. This test determines each student's entry grade level in reading and math. Most students sent to CEP are significantly below grade level in reading and math.

Based on the diagnostic testing, and review of the student's academic record, we write an individualized academic plan for each student that targets the reading and math skills they have to develop. We then assess what courses they need to pass in order to get out of the ninth grade parking lot.

Our academic program is based on Direct Instruction and Mastery Learning. These are the foundation of our CEP program. We have three goals for our program: accelerated learning in reading and math, course credits, and basic skills tests.

Our curricular components are fully integrated with each other, and are delivered through what we call a "teacher assisted integrated learning system." Each component of the program complements the other components, and reinforces the skills and objectives. As a result, students are able to earn courses at an accelerated pace while at the same time improving their basic skills.

The classroom is not a traditional classroom. Each student works at his or her own pace, in an individualized program using computers, video based learning, print based learning, and learning in collaborative groups on projects, labs and in discussion groups. There is a rich student to technology ratio: one state of the art computer per two students, and one video station for every three students.

Student progress is closely monitored at CEP. For the purposes of tracking and reporting student progress, the assessment system used to measure reading and math grade level growth at CEP, published by Computer Curriculum Corporation, is a continuous progress monitoring system. It is aligned with the skills a student must master. In Texas, the alignment is with the Texas Assessment System, known as the TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills).

 The system works for these kids: Students learn self-discipline by working individually on their studies. They also learn to work successfully in groups, an important component of the learning paradigm at our school. They know where they stand, they get clear direction, they get the support and structure they need and they can set short-term goals that are attainable.

Students, teachers, and even the sending schools can closely follow the children's ongoing progress. This kind of feedback has been a significant factor in motivating students at CEP. It is a critical component of the CEP program.

Additionally, CEP is committed to serving the complete needs of its students. The CEP student service center on-site is the foundation for making good on this promise. CEP creates partnerships with community-based service providers to provide comprehensive services for students and their families. Services such as counseling, psychological evaluations, support for teenaged parents, on-site truancy officers and probation officers who assist with attendance and behavioral issues and other social services, are provided by community-based providers who work out of the CEP student service center.

The CEP behavior program is incentive-based, and through each student's individualized behavior plan focuses on helping students to replace inappropriate behaviors and develop appropriate behaviors. We seek to develop a child's sense of self-worth and respect for others, to develop their anger management, conflict resolution skills and responsibility for their own behavior. Behavioral development is central to CEP's educational goals.

Students have the opportunity to earn points daily and to learn to work as a team, to achieve goals. Students who learn self-discipline and improve their behavior earn class placement in the Honors Behavior class. It's not honors for academics: it's honors for behavior. These students have privileges the other classes do not. Through this behavior program, students are able to develop appropriate behaviors, with the goal to sustain behavior change over time.

Also of vital importance to our program is school-to-work learning. We focus on developing those social and life skills that will help students to be successful in the workplace. This is not a traditional school. CEP has put together a state of the art physical layout that minimizes the potential for student disruption, and maximizes the opportunity for students to learn in a safe, structured learning environment. It's called a quad. The facility is divided into individual quads, with each quad having four classrooms that circle a commons area. Students are assigned to a classroom within a quad.

There are two single-stall restrooms between every two classrooms in the quad. Students go to the bathroom as they need to, individually. Students do not mingle in the halls between classes. Their only movement is during rotations within each classroom, to the commons area, where breakfast and lunch are served, or to the PE class.

In each classroom, there is a co-teaching team, made up of a teacher and an instructional assistant, who are responsible for the class of 24 students who attend their class. Stationed in the commons area, in the center of this, is a learning manager, who functions as a mini-school administrator, managing, supporting, assisting the approximately 100 students and four co-teaching teams in that quad.

There's also a CEP employee called the student monitor, assigned to each quad. The student monitor assists the learning manager in supporting and assisting the co-teaching teams in that quad. One more person, a behavior specialist, is assigned, to each two quads, to assist the learning manager and the co-teaching teams in developing student behaviors. Each student has no less than five adults whose responsibility is that child's academic and behavioral development.

To conclude, our partnership benefits a school district in several ways: We provide safer schools, more manageable classrooms, accelerated learning for those students who are far below grade level, improved test scores, lower dropout rates, and students who are prepared to learn and follow the rules when they return to their home schools.

There is one more thing to be told about this successful partnership. What has happened when this big city school district partnered with an emerging education company is a unique community partnership. A teachers' union unites with the superintendent and the school board when it sees how teachers in classrooms can now teach, and students who were not learning are now being helped. The success of this partnership leads to expanded community and business support for the superintendent and the school board. Where the press has previously been negative in its coverage of the public school's operations, positive media coverage has emerged. Political entities that agree on few issues come together in support of the partnership.

Taxpayers recognize that the district has identified a program that can save the district money. Parents and students are pleased with the opportunity to have safe schools and manageable classrooms where students can learn with little disruption. Students who would have been lost, who would have dropped out of school--some of whom would have ended up in prison--are given a chance to succeed, through the school district's partnership with CEP.

Through the leadership of Dr. Rod Paige, and with the support of the Houston School Board, this public school-business partnership has forged the way in addressing those students whose needs merge the critical issues of school safety, school violence, and low academic performance.

The model is one that is replicable from one city to the next. It has been replicated in Houston, and is being replicated in Dallas now. It is a unique partnership that can work in large urban districts, as well as smaller suburban districts. Other school districts outside of Texas are interested in the possibility of replicating the model within.

It is a model that works. It also works for parents, who have lost hope for their children. It works for the school district, it works for the classroom teacher who can now teach, and it works for the community. Above all, it works for the students.

MS. RAVITCH: Based on my personal experience; we've talked about these kids as violent, disruptive low-achievers. These are really beautiful kids. It can be amazing: You walk through the school and you say, "These are supposed to be violent kids?" They're really nice kids.

You can't help but think that somehow our society has failed them. The whole setting has failed them. What is impressive about CEP is that they have a chance, and they're not being allowed to just go to the streets and fail.

We will proceed with questions from the audience:

QUESTION: What is the average cost per student?

DR. PEARSON: It varies from district to district. What I can tell you is that it is less expensive than what school districts are currently spending on their alternative school programs. Keep in mind that about 12 percent of the population is special education. Additionally, about 70 percent of those kids have repeated, and 25 percent come from behavior alternative programs. We are able to save in comparison to what they're spending in their district on alternative programs.

DR. PAIGE: When we began, CEP had a contract with the county: they served children who were in the county system that had been expelled from school. We decided to enter into a contract with them for our students who had not yet been expelled from school, but who were chronically disruptive, or who were so far behind in their academic achievement that they were a problem.

It was then that we learned about the merger between the two problems. Students who are way behind in academic pursuits traditionally turn out to be really serious problems, especially when you go from the eighth grade situation to the ninth grade.

A teacher can come and make the case that a student is disrupting the classroom, and that they cannot conduct class because of the student's conduct. We then find an alternative setting for the student. Through our authority as a superintendent's office, we can place them in another setting that can meet their needs. The CEP is one of those settings.

In many cases, students do not want to be reassigned. In other cases there are parents who come and want us to assign their kid to CEP, but we are unable to. It is sometimes a budget factor: what is the difference in per-pupil costs for reassigning the student versus keeping him in the system.

It is often a judgement call. We try to make sure that there is decent treatment of the student, and that the parent is a part of the decision-making process. But the bottom line is, we make a call and that's the final word.

A student like PT sticks out like a sore thumb in the Houston Independent School District. It is only recently--three years ago--that we found a place that we can better meet PT's needs. At first we operated four of what we called "alternative schools," and we had very high costs and very low production. If PT had ended up in one of those schools, we would have been spending more than $14,000 a year on his education.

QUESTION: Are students often placed back into their sending schools?

DR. PAIGE: Absolutely, and we have reasonable success in that area. We do have some replacements that are not completely successful. Probably it has to do with the environment that we put a child back into. We think it would be better for some of the kids if we could keep them in a setting like CEP all the way through. For others, they fit right back into the old school, and catch back up with their peers, and do well. It's a wide degree of responses. Generally, one thing is clear: the students are much better off for having this experience than they would otherwise have been.

QUESTION: How many students are in need of the CEP service across the Houston school district? How many students have to be sent to CEP more than once?

DR. PAIGE: I don't have those numbers: we have a contract with CEP for 2500 students. If we sent all of the students who would meet the criteria, the program would be a lot larger, perhaps five or six thousand students. There's the economic factor, however. We can't send all the students there. Even if a student might need to go back, we probably would not send him back. We'd make a judgement between whether that student needs to go back, or whether a new student should go.

QUESTION: Is there a certain minimum skill requirement for a student to be sent to CEP? Have there been any difficulties in the contract negotiations stemming from the difference in management between a public and a private organization?

DR. PAIGE: Yes, our contract with CEP requires a certain grade level, and that is a product of negotiations, just like you would do in any other contract. We manage our contract just like we would manage any other contract, and we don't consider whether you're private or public, we only seek results. Any organization who might consider themselves private needs to consider that when they sign a contract with us, they are in effect governed by a public elected council: Our school board.

QUESTION: I'm going to assume that some of these children’s poor academic performance originates more in their family setting, versus the academic setting. How do you work with the families of these students to solve those problems?

DR. PAIGE: That's an important observation. This is the most difficult part of for all of us. There are some social service agencies that we work with in dealing with interaction with families. We also have an organization in most of our schools, referred to as "Citizen Schools," which are agencies that provide counseling and social services for the student and for the family. That is about as much as we can do with that kind of student. We primarily concern ourselves with what goes on in the school itself.

DR. PEARSON: If you'll go back to your packet, we have a place in our school called the Student Service Center. It is coordinated by a CEP employee called the Student Service Center coordinator who works with community based organizations to provide a wide range of services for students and their families.

Those families who are in crisis or need support are identified through our admission intake, and then through our teaching and administration we monitor kids' progress and needs. They may be referred to the behavioral specialist or to the Student Service Center.

Once they get to the Student Service Center, we have community-based providers, who have been very successful in delivering their respective services at our school. We provide them with an office, telephone hook-ups and coordination of appointments. Through this approach, we address the whole child. As you've said, there are kids who have those needs.

MS. RAVITCH: Let me mention just one other incident. When I was at the CEP school, one of the kids who was showing me around said, "You know, I feel really safe here because I know that I don't have to look to the right of me, to the left of me, and behind me. I'm safe." That's a nice feeling. He wasn't sure he wanted to go back to his sending school.

The thing about these quads is that the kids are constantly observed. There are always adults around, and they set the atmosphere. My co-evaluator, Mary, said that when she went to Catholic school her favorite nun used to say, "It's better to be looked over than overlooked."

These kids come from situations in their previous schools where they were overlooked. These were the kids who fall through the cracks. Nobody falls through the cracks at CEP. They don't succeed with all the kids, but their statistics show that most of the kids do well.

QUESTION: If several of the students are disciplinary problems, how many of the students that are assigned to the CEP program actually drop out of the CEP program?

DR. PEARSON: Our dropout rate last year was a little less than five percent. Let me just back that up by saying they don't just disappear and we don't just say, "Well, mark his name off the list." We have a very well developed system of going to the home, contacting them, trying to pick them up and trying to find them. A student does not become a dropout until we have exhausted every attempt to find him.

QUESTION: Is this a legitimate co-educational environment? What percentage of boys and girls come into your system, at all levels?

DR. PEARSON: It is a ratio of about three to one, in terms of boys to girls. We have designed a system that motivates them in their behavior management systems to go into a co-ed placement, and it has been very successful.

QUESTION: Two brief questions: Following up on the issue of families with issues, how many kids’ learning disabilities might be related to problems with drug use. Also, how do you address dyslexia?

DR. PEARSON: Our special education percentage nears that of public schools. It's about 12 percent. Within that population the largest majority is learning disabled students: about 55 percent are learning disabled. We have been very successful in addressing those students. They are categorized within learning disabilities as ADHD, dyslexic and so forth.

What we have is a basic skills program that, because of the diagnostic assessment that we use, is able to pinpoint specifically if the dyslexia is in reading. We're able to pinpoint the specific skills they need. We have courses that will teach phonemic awareness, phonics and sound-symbol relationships--starting at a very early level--so that these students' needs are addressed.

What the school district--Dr. Paige's specialists--have told us is when kids go back they been classified as learning disabled, and they are then put into an annual review system. Part of that might be the test called the Woodcock-Johnson.

QUESTION: Could you clarify the average scores for the 'parking lot' ninth graders, because it seems to me Ron is doing an awfully good job if the failing ninth graders are averaging out at eighth grade. How does that happen?

DR. PAIGE: That average grade entry of eighth grade is their actual grade, not necessarily their reading level. A lot of them are in eighth grade, but they are much lower in terms of reading.

QUESTION: There is such a hugely diverse spectrum of problems, whether it's social issues, educational issues, behavior, or any number of other problems. It's so difficult to put together individualized programs with children who have so many problems. What kind of staffing do you have, and how can you possibly put together those kinds of programs that meet the needs of those students?

DR. PEARSON: What you have to start with is your instrument of measurement. If they're going to be measured by some state or local measure, you have to start with that first, and look to see what is going to be declared "achievement." You back up from that, and that's what we've done.

We designed a curriculum that includes an ongoing progress monitoring system. When a student comes into the program, we strive to make sure that the student's development is aligned with the judging criteria.

Once we've done that we place them in the integrated learning system, that puts together modalities of many different kinds. It is really important to do this--I want to emphasize--because this collaborative approach allows students to be proactive with their learning.

You put all of those modalities together, and you can address the majority of students’ needs. Now, are we going to meet everybody's needs? Is it going to work a hundred percent of the time? No. But here's what we do know: 100 percent of the students that were sent to us were previously deemed to be failures.

QUESTION: I was wondering how you attract teachers to work in this program. What qualifications would you expect them to have, and do they receive higher compensation than public school teachers?

DR. PEARSON: We attract teachers through the standard ways, all the ways that you traditionally attract teachers. It starts with the program, and the reputation the program has established. Our goal is always to hire a certified teacher with a behavior management background.

You probably have a teacher shortage here. This is true across the nation. Education Secretary Reilly just recently said that we have a crisis in providing teachers in public schools in the United States of America.

In light of that, if we are not able to find a certified teacher, here is what we do. We find a person who is degreed in the subject matter needed. We financially back them going to a certification program--be it a standard teacher certification program, or an alternative certification program--so they can get the skills that they need in terms of pedagogy.

In terms of the knowledge that they need, to begin working in the CEP, we have an 80-hour teacher-training program that they go through before they ever go into the classroom.

DR. PAIGE: I discovered something interesting about that question you just asked. There are a lot of teachers who enjoy working with these kinds of students, given the right kind of support. We've lost several teachers from our traditional system that went to CEP.

When we questioned them, it turned out that they enjoyed working with these kinds of students. It was exhilarating for them to see the amount of progress they got there, given the kind of support that they can have. The problem they were having in our system is that they were required to be so broad in terms of their reach.

QUESTION: Is the money that is behind CEP what we would call 'traditional education funding,' or can it be looked at as additional money that the total school population would not have had if CEP did not exist?

MS RAVITCH: They are getting the standard Houston allocation, plus whatever additional monies would be allocated to these particular children in the way of special education or other programs that they would be eligible for.

QUESTION: Can you discuss the behavior management plan you have in effect? Is this school-wide? Is it individualized?

DR. PEARSON: Our behavioral program is incentive-based. It is designed to take a student from where they are, and to focus on developing behaviors.

It is not a compliance model. We can get kids to comply in schools, and they walk out of there and continue their misbehaviors. What our goal is, is to develop self-esteem and responsible behaviors, so that when they leave, they have the mechanisms to return to their school and resolve conflicts, manage anger, and deal with people in a responsible manner.

QUESTION: Looking at the average grade level entry, and average level growth, if kids are entering on average with second and third grade skills, and they're gaining two or two and a half grades, what happens when they go back into ninth grade? They're really only at fourth and fifth grade.

DR. PEARSON: Let me emphasize that this is a mastery-based program. When I say that a student has achieved two grade levels in reading, that means that they have mastered all of the objectives. We don't give them a couple that they do not have to master.

What we have are gaps in learning. We have a student sitting in ninth grade algebra, who in third grade didn't learn adding with regrouping. That's "carrying." When they get to ninth grade they have the intellectual processes to do algebra, but when they add it all up and do the algebraic expression, they get the wrong answer. Why is that? It is because they're not adding correctly.

This is not a remedial program: It is accelerated learning. While they're developing their skills in reading and math, they're able--once they reach a certain point--to begin their course credits.

Center for Civic Innovation.





Dr. Rod Paige, Houston Independent School District

Dr. Mary Jane Pearson, Community Education Partners

Introductory Remarks:

Diane Ravitch, Adjunct Fellow, Manhattan Institute


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