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Cover Story: Forrest Hill Academy: The children left behind

When the Atlanta Public Schools hired politically connected Community Education Partners to operate an academy for kids in trouble, a miracle was promised. An ACLU lawsuit now alleges the school is a warehouse for hard-to-teach children.

 

Patti Welch was living in Douglasville when she went through a divorce last year. Atlanta was her chance to start over. Weary of her one-hour, 20-minute commute to the northside law office where she works as a paralegal, Welch found a duplex in the West End only 20 minutes from her job.

But the move also was about her 15-year-old son, Patrick. He was a smart kid, a B student entering the 10th grade. But he'd gotten into fights. One took place just off school grounds and involved several kids, so officials labeled it "gang-related." That meant Patrick would be sent to Douglas County's alternative school.

Even though she was confident her son wasn't in a gang, Welch didn't bother to appeal the school district's decision. She thought an alternative school might help him. And she hoped the 10 days Patrick spent in jail after his last fight would serve as a wake-up call.

Welch knew her son would be sent to an alternative school when they moved to Atlanta. But she thought it would be temporary. Instead, officials told her that because Patrick had a gang-related fight on his record, he'd never be allowed to enroll in a regular school in Atlanta.

She tried to make the best of it. When told he'd be sent to Forrest Hill Academy, she looked at her son and forced a smile. "Wow," she said hopefully. "They're putting you in an academy."

Six months later, Patrick became one of eight student plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union's Racial Justice Program in New York City. The suit alleges that Forrest Hill – which is operated by a for-profit company called Community Education Partners – is little more than a pathway to prison for Atlanta's unwanted students.

"It would be a stretch to even call this a school," says Reggie Shuford, an attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program in New York. "There is little to no academic instruction, and its students are treated like criminals. It is nothing more than a warehouse, largely for poor children of color."

The ACLU contends that Forrest Hill students, 97 percent of whom are African-American, spend most of their days filling out worksheets, for which they get no feedback. According to state figures, nine out of 10 students at the school are unable to pass the standardized state test for math proficiency. The figures also show that Forrest Hill is the most violent school in Atlanta.

"It is a national disgrace that the Atlanta school system has handed over its constitutional responsibility to a private, for-profit corporation," says Emily Chiang, the case's lead lawyer.

Forrest Hill wasn't quite the academy that Patti Welch had hoped for.

The idea of putting problem children into an "alternative school" is a recent phenomenon in the world of education.

Before a federal law that took effect in 1978, public schools had no legal requirement to provide education to special needs kids. If a child was violent, or continually disrupted the class, schools could kick him or her out. When the law took away that option, teachers and school systems faced the chore of trying to tame disruptive students. The trend of taking those kids out of regular classrooms and putting them into "alternative" schools began to take hold.

That practice quickly led to allegations that some systems – under increasing pressure to churn out higher scores on standardized tests – were simply "warehousing" their undesirable students, out of sight and out of mind.

"Those schools weren't about education, but just getting through the day," says Eric Freeman, assistant professor of educational policy studies at Georgia State University. "Those were the 'expendable kids.' It's no longer acceptable to have schools where kids are warehoused, but we still have a long way to go."

When it was founded in 1996, Community Education Partners touted itself as a way to get expendable kids back into the mainstream. From the start, however, there were indications CEP's considerable political weight was as responsible for its rise as were its education programs.

CEP was formed in Nashville by four men with heavy Republican connections.CEO Randle Richardson, was chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party from 1992 to 1995 and oversaw a 1994 electoral sweep in which Bill Frist and Fred Thompson won Senate seats and Don Sundquist was elected governor.

Another co-founder, John Danielson, would become chief of staff for Education Secretary Rod Paige under George W. Bush. One of the initial investors, Tom Beasley, had chaired the Tennessee GOP before Richardson did.

Beasley also founded the Corrections Corporation of America, which runs privatized prisons. Founded in 1984, CCA has grown to become the sixth-largest prison system in the country – trailing only the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and four states. But the company also has faced criticism for understaffing, high turnover and lax security. According to a 1999 state audit, neglect of medical care and security at CCA facilities in Georgia amounted to "borderline deliberate indifference."

The two companies – CCA and CEP – have turned out to share some parallels. Both had business plans that relied on obtaining contracts to operate government services. Both were started in Nashville by major Republican Party players. And both went to Texas to make their mark.

Texas was a natural entry point for CEP. In 1995, George W. Bush had become governor, and his administration was brimming with ideas to reform schools. The bundle of changes would be touted during Bush's 2000 presidential run as the "Texas Miracle."

In that environment, George Scott, president of a Texas nonprofit education reform group, helped CEP gain a foothold.

"I got pulled into it by the former superintendent for the Houston school department," Scott says. "It's a sinister manipulation of reality to say that public education is meeting its constitutional and moral obligation to these children; we throw at-risk kids into alternative centers and forget about them. Then along came a company that said it was going to do something different."

Scott says he first used his political connections to help the company land a contract to take over the education services at a juvenile detention center. He was impressed by CEP's pitch that its methods could help problem children get up to speed academically so they go back to mainstream schools.

"You have kids in the ninth grade who can't do fractions," Scott says. "If a kid is in the ninth grade but is at the fifth-grade level, giving them an algebra book is useless. Under this program, we would start them at the level where they are at, and build from there. CEP promised two years of academic growth for every year a student was in their school."

In 1997, Scott says, he used his relationship with Paige, then Houston's school superintendent, to help CEP land its first public school contract. Under the future education secretary's stewardship, the Houston Independent School District was becoming a cradle of the so-called Texas Miracle. Paige had put a system in place that held individual principals accountable for dropout rates and test scores. Then, the district signed a $17.9 million contract to turn the education of as many as 2,500 children to CEP.

Initially, the corporation hired Carl Shaw – who was the former chairman of the Texas Education Agency's assessment committee – to develop an independent test to grade the progress of the CEP students. "I will never forget the day the school board approved the CEP contract," Scott says. "Randle Richardson and I were walking out of the building and I told him that not all the kids in this are going to make two years of progress in one. But that is going to be your strength. You'll say that you're being held accountable for the program."

Before CEP's contract with Houston took effect, however, the first test results from the juvenile detention facility came back. Scott recalls that they showed the students weren't making much progress – some had even regressed. CEP blamed the test, and fired Shaw.

Richardson disputes that account. He says Scott let his friendship with Shaw intrude on his judgment and that the scores showed 20 student inmates had regressed in math but that most had made great progress. His own expert looked at the test and determined it was flawed, an opinion seconded by the Texas Education Agency.

Whether it was over a principle or a friendship, the incident left Scott with strong feelings about CEP. He now says the one thing he's most ashamed of in his professional life is helping the company get into the Texas schools. The absence of Shaw's test, he says, left the company devoid of the very thing that had attracted him to the concept in the first place: accountability.

Instead, Scott says, CEP began to cull its political connections. A sitting Houston school board member was hired as a consultant. Sandy Kress, who later authored Bush's No Child Left Behind program, was hired as a lobbyist. And when the company opened the campus of its first alternative school, in Houston in 1997, former President George H.W. Bush was at the opening ceremony to offer his endorsement.

"They put together a very powerful, politically juiced operation in Texas," Scott says.

CEP followed its Houston deal with a five-year, $10 million-a-year contract in Dallas. Then, it moved on to Florida and Philadelphia. And all along it followed a familiar pattern: It hired well-connected lobbyists to sell the program and courted elected officials with generous campaign contributions.

CEP claimed it had found the key to educating a student population that was thought to be beyond help. The schools used a computer-based education program called PLATO that CEP said enables students to quickly catch up to their age level in reading and math skills.

The company was swept up in the middle of what became a nationwide education reform movement. Bush campaigned for the presidency heralding his "Texas Miracle" of low dropout rates and high test scores. When he was elected, he named Paige to his Cabinet and pushed through Congress the No Child Left Behind Act, which instituted high achievement goals for the nation's public schools.

But even as it rode the wave of its association with Bush's education changes, CEP became a target of criticism. Some parents complained of prisonlike conditions inside CEP schools. Others claimed CEP was, in reality, doing little more than warehousing problem students.

There were official rebukes as well. An internal evaluation in Dallas found that "the model of education provided by CEP was untenable." "The reliance on noncertified teachers for the bulk of the student-teacher interaction was useful for the company to save money, but was not a design in the best interest of the students," the report went on to say. "Students who attended Community Education Partners did not do very well academically."

CEP had even refused to provide its budget data to the school district, the report said, which made it impossible to know just how it was spending the money it received.

In 2002, the Dallas school system fired CEP. By then, however, the company was developing its relationship with a new customer: Atlanta.

It's unclear exactly how CEP came to acquire a $6.9 million contract to open an alternative school in Atlanta. Richardson says the school system contacted the company in 2001. Citing the pending ACLU lawsuit, Atlanta school officials won't even talk about CEP.

At the time the contract was signed, Atlanta officials brushed aside concerns already brewing in Dallas. They cited a "task force" report that supposedly recommended the district privatize its alternative schools; when the AJC requested a copy of that report, however, school officials said they couldn't find one.

It didn't take long for concerns to crop up in Atlanta. In August 2002, CEP opened its alternative school in temporary quarters at the old Archer High School. Parents of some of the students attended the Rev. Darryl Winston's southeast Atlanta church.

"We were hearing allegations of mistreatment and a prison environment," says Winston, president of the Greater American Ministerial Council. "We met with the staff, and they admitted that 90 percent of what we described had to do with the building. The Archer High School campus was extremely chaotic. They told us the building did not give us an accurate picture of what the program was about."

CEP even flew Winston and other community leaders to Houston to tour their schools there. "We were impressed by what we saw," he says.

The company assured Winston the problem was that the Atlanta school had yet to find a permanent location. The company prefers a specific design for its schools. Kids are segregated into male and female classes, and the classes are isolated inside pods within the building. "In school, kids get in trouble in the hallway or the cafeteria or going to the restrooms," says Anthony Edwards, a CEP vice president. "So we control that. There are restrooms and water fountains in each of the common areas. It eliminates movement. Kids get in trouble when they're moving."

Three properties had already been identified, but each was scuttled by community opposition to an alternative school in the neighborhood.

CEP asked for Winston's patience, and he was willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile, the company did what it could to strengthen its political ties in Atlanta.

When school board members faced re-election in 2005, CEP and its executives gave money in four races. According to Fulton County records, Randle Richardson made a $250 contribution to Mark Riley, who easily won re-election. He also contributed $500 to Brenda Muhammad, a former board member who ran successfully to regain a seat. CEP's chief financial officer, Phil Baggett, contributed another $250 to Muhammad.

CEP was more generous in two other contests: Richardson and Baggett each made three separate contributions to incumbent Eric Wilson that totaled $2,000, and newcomer Yolanda Johnson received a total of $2,500.

Although Georgia law requires candidates to list the occupations and employers of their contributors on their disclosure forms, none of the school board candidates did that for the CEP executives. Muhammad says she had no idea Richardson and Baggett were CEP executives until CL told her. "If they were standing in front of me, I wouldn't know them," she says. "No campaign contribution will influence me from making my decisions based on the best interest of the children of Atlanta."

Riley also said he was unaware that Richardson led CEP. "That's a little embarrassing," he says. "I make a point of never accepting contributions from vendors. I've even returned checks before."

Six months after the school board began its new term, it extended CEP's contract to 2009.

When school opened in August, Patti Welch and her son got their first look at Forrest Hill.

Welch went through a 90-minute orientation, where the rules of the school were laid out. Patrick wasn't to bring anything onto campus that was considered contraband. The list included watches, jewelry, purses, combs, brushes, keys and money in excess of $5. Paper and pens weren't allowed either; the school would provide everything that was needed, even tampons for female students.

Patrick would go through a metal detector each morning and be patted down by a security guard to ensure he didn't have weapons or drugs. Backpacks weren't allowed, and books couldn't be taken home. In fact, there was no homework for Forrest Hill students.

Patrick went through a weeklong orientation that included tests on the PLATO computer system to determine where he stood academically. On his first day, he sent his mother a text message: "This school is so bad."

He found the lessons boring. He complained that the teacher would simply put an assignment on the board; then the kids would be expected to do it on their own. Once the students were finished, they were given crossword puzzles to fill out.

"Patrick found it totally uninteresting and totally unmotivating," Welch says. "He kept sending me text messages, and I didn't believe him. He started missing days, so I went up there."

What Welch saw alarmed her. The building was new and well-maintained, but the pods where students were segregated reminded her of a jail. "There's one steel door to the classroom, no windows. It looked like a mini-prison."

Not long after that, she heard the ACLU wanted to interview parents with children at Forrest Hill Academy for a potential lawsuit. Welch decided to talk to the organization.

Two years ago, a special education lawyer in Atlanta called the ACLU and suggested they investigate the CEP school in Atlanta. "As soon as we began to scratch the surface, we were so outraged by what we found," says the ACLU's Chiang. "The standardized test scores are really shocking. No one was passing."

State statistics show the school has made few strides toward improving its students' academic standing. According to state Department of Education figures from the 2006-07 school year, 91 percent of CEP's students failed the state's assessment test in mathematics; 66 percent failed the reading portion.

In its latest contract with Atlanta, CEP agreed to a performance goal of making measurable progress in 31 categories for the 2005-06 school year, based primarily on results from the state's Criterion Referenced Competency tests. Of those categories, six couldn't be measured because there were too few students enrolled to get a proper study group, and CEP students showed improvement in 11 from the previous year. But in 13 categories, the students tested worse. In the final category – ninth grade physical science – there was no change: 100 percent of the students failed both years.

"They cannot deny their standardized test scores are abysmal," Chiang says.

Shirley Kilgore, a former Washington High School principal in Atlanta who now conults for CEP, counters that it's unfair to evaluate the program based on state tests. "Students in an alternative program are transient," she says. "We had a girl come in here last week. She's been here a matter of days, but her score belongs to us. Some of these students taking the tests have not been with us for any length of time."

Richardson, the company's CEO, points out that almost 90 percent of students sent to Forrest Hill are at least two grade levels behind in reading and mathematics: "You wouldn't pass it either, if you're reading at the fourth grade level and you're taking a ninth grade competency test."

The ACLU claims the heart of the problem is that Forrest Hill cuts corners when it comes to academics. The teachers don't teach, Chiang says, but instead hand out worksheets for the students to fill out.

She also notes that CEP has a practice of hiring inexperienced teachers. According to state figures, the average level of experience of the teaching staff at Forrest Hill is less than a year.

Kilgore, the CEP consultant, argues that few quality teachers want to work at an alternative school. "They are either committed to making a difference," she says, "or else a new teacher starting out." But at least one other alternative school attracts far more senior teachers: The average level of experience at Fulton County's McClarin Alternative School is 19 years.

The ACLU also alleges that students often are manhandled by the school's staff, that teachers have even thrown textbooks at the children in their rooms. CEP denies there is any student mistreatment.

"Inexperienced teachers are a recipe for problems," says GSU's Freeman. "These kinds of schools are special places and full of a challenging population of kids."

Most of CEP's teachers aren't instructing in their fields of expertise either. According to state records, of the 76 total core classes taught at Forrest Hill, only 45 percent are taught by "highly qualified" teachers – those who have majored in the subject they teach. The statewide average is 96 percent.

"We're very deeply concerned, especially in an alternative school setting where you need highly-qualified educators to work with the children," says Georgia Association of Educators President Jeff Hubbard, whose group has lobbied against privatizing schools. "We don't think students should be put in a situation where a company is trying to make a profit off their education."

CEP says it spends $9,300 per student compared with $12,406 per pupil for the rest of the students in Atlanta's public school system.The company contends the school saves money because it doesn't have to offer such activities as sports or music programs that are required in regular school programs.

But Freeman's skeptical. While the savings sound efficient, he stresses that, in education, you generally get what you pay for: "These kids need a lot; they're needy kids. You need to spend more money on them than typical schools. If they are spending less, I'd want to know why it costs less to educate a student with exceptional needs. Where are they saving money? What are they subtracting and is it good? Are they saving money by hiring less experienced teachers who have no training in dealing with these kids?"

Freeman is careful to say he hasn't studied Forrest Hill enough to make an ironclad assessment. But, he says, "I know people who teach in alternative schools. It's not an easy environment. It usually requires very special teachers who can work with those kids. It's a big challenge."

The Rev. Darryl Winston is angry that he sees many of the same issues raised in the ACLU lawsuit that led him to confront CEP officials four years ago. And his anger isn't just directed at the company.

"We need a statement from Superintendent Beverly Hall that she takes these allegations seriously and that the APS is looking into them," he says. "All we got was a statement from the press person that amounted to kind of 'dismissing' it. I've been told as recently as last week that the APS position is to wait and see what comes out in court."

What especially frustrates him is that no one who isn't behind the walls at Forrest Hill can really know what's going on there. "CEP has denied every one of the charges, but there's no way to verify that," Winston says. "We need experts. I've called on the board of education to launch its own investigation and see if the charges are true. If they can't, they need a task force appointed by the governor to see what is going on at CEP."

As far back as Houston, CEP officials have had to deal with complaints that the company's performance needed to be evaluated by independent parties. "We want to be held accountable for attendance and behavior and academics," insists CEP's Anthony Edwards. "It's very important to us that we are a standards-based program."

CEP claims students who attended Forrest Hill in the 2006-07 school year were, on average, performing math and reading on the third-grade level when they arrived. The school claims that students who were at the school for at least 150 days made remarkable progress: an increase of 3.2 grade levels in reading and four years in math.

Under its Atlanta contract, however, CEP both administers and grades those tests. There's no independent verification of the results, but longtime educators say making those kinds of academic strides in one year is virtually impossible. For a certain percentage of students who are highly motivated, yes, it can be done; for an entire student population, unlikely.

"Kids with emotional and behavioral problems don't do well in school," Freeman says. "And kids aren't just going to snap to and start learning."

Chiang says lack of progress on standardized tests make it clear the PLATO test scores are skewed. Students have told the ACLU that they take the PLATO tests unsupervised and can ask each other for the answers they don't know. "CEP claims a pronounced spike in the test scores, but we believe it is because of PLATO," she says. "In reality, there's no teaching going on."

Edwards downplays PLATO's results. "We are not judged by these," he says. "It's just a mechanism, a diagnostic tool. The student is given a grade level of functionality."

But the contract with the Atlanta school system says that Forrest Hill's success or failure will be measured by a combination of results from PLATO tests and state standardized tests. In addition, if a student who attends CEP for at least 120 days doesn't show growth in reading and mathematics of at least one year on the PLATO system, the contract mandates that CEP must educate that student at no additional cost to the school district until he or she has reached that level.

Patti Welch says her son continues to struggle at Forrest Hill, and has missed extended stretches of school because he doesn't want to be there. But she says his disciplinary problems now seem to be behind him. She plans to take him out of the alternative school at the end of the year; she wants to home-school him.

But ACLU lawyers say the federal lawsuit – which names the school system, board members and CEP as defendants – is about more than just eight kids in one school. It cuts to the heart of a public school's responsibilities to kids who are in the margins, and it raises questions about the risks of privatizing public education.

"We see it as a broader national problem, the trend of privatization of government functions and warehousing kids in a school-to-prison pipeline," Chiang says.

For the students at Forrest Hill, it's also about not being forgotten by the officials who sent them there. "The problem is that Atlanta didn't build in an adequate system for oversight and evaluation," Freeman says. "You want it written into the contract to have a good program evaluation. It's got to be done by people who know how to do it, people not connected to the school department or CEP so there's no conflict of interest."

Freeman says there should be an annual independent review of Forrest Hill. Evaluators would go into the school, see the teaching methods, and interview students and teachers and the administrators.

"I hope the CEP school is investigated by people who know what they're doing," he says. "There are good questions to ask, and they deserve good answers. The school can't answer those question, they can only provide the information. Somebody else has to be the evaluator."