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ACLU Sues Controversial Private School for “Troubled” Youth

By Jonathan Springston, Senior Staff Writer, The Atlanta Progressive News (May 06, 2008)

(APN) ATLANTA – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and ACLU of Georgia filed a class action lawsuit March 11, 2008, against the Atlanta Independent School System (AISS), Community Education Partners, Inc. (CEP), the Atlanta Board of Education, and Atlanta Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall for violating students’ rights to an adequate public education and their right to be free from unreasonable searches.

CEP is a Houston-based for-profit corporation designed to serve as a taxpayer-funded, privately-run alternative school for middle and high school students. Their goal is to tackle the problem of handling disruptive and low-performing students. CEP entered into a contract with the AISS in 2002.

Other cities with CEP schools include Houston, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Richmond, Virginia.

New Orleans activists fought in 2002 and 2003 to prevent CEP from starting an alternative school there when they learned of previous problems the company had in Houston.

CEP’s site in Atlanta recently changed its location as well as its name to Forrest Hills Academy.

The lawsuit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court on behalf of eight students who currently attend Atlanta’s Forrest Hills Academy, charges that the School District and CEP are in violation of several state and federal constitutional obligations.

"The appalling performance of Community Education Partners is matched by the dereliction of the city of Atlanta in its duty to provide students with an adequate public education," Emily Chiang, a Staff Attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, said in a press release obtained by Atlanta Progressive News.

"It is a national disgrace that the Atlanta school system has handed over its constitutional responsibility to a private, for-profit corporation and let the taxpayers and children of Atlanta pay the price," she added.

The educational practices at the CEP school range from "the bizarre to the blatantly unconstitutional," the ACLU alleges.

There is no functional curriculum or homework policy while students spend the day filling out worksheets with no feedback, ACLU says.

"Under this arrangement, students suffer while a private company prospers and nobody is held accountable," Mawuli Davis, a cooperating attorney from the law firm Davis Bozeman, said in the press release."If Atlanta is going to farm out its responsibilities to a third party, it must still uphold its constitutional obligations to these children."

"Atlanta Public Schools is disturbed by the allegations contained in the complaint and will thoroughly investigate them. Every child deserves a quality public education and APS strives to provide that to each and every one of our students. We will have no further comments while this litigation is in process," the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) said in a statement obtained by APN.

Anthony Edwards, a Regional Vice President for CEP, balked at the suit.

"I am shocked that an organization like the ACLU would malign a program without verifying the charges they have publicized," Edwards told Atlanta Progressive News.

"It appears this suit is part of the ACLU’s national campaign to eliminate school safety statutes and alternative education programs," Edwards said.

TYPICAL CEP STUDENT

"The typical student referred to CEP is reading and performing math three to four years below their grade level placement," Edwards said.

"The students typically have been retained one or two years, are not passing courses or earning credits on a pace to graduate, and have failed all or parts of the state skills test," Edwards said.

The school is divided into several"“small learning communities," each composed of five classrooms and a commons area, Edwards said.

"The CEP program is designed to offer an intense classroom experience with direct instruction for the entire class and facilitated instruction for individual students and small groups," he told APN.

Edwards countered the ACLU’s claims that there is a no homework policy and that teachers do not work with students.

"The purpose of homework is to reinforce what is being taught. Students have time set aside in every class to complete work that has been checked by the instructional staff," Edwards said.

ARE STUDENTS LEARNING?

The ACLU alleges students are not performing well.

For the 2006-2007 school year, 91.1 percent of CEP students failed to achieve proficiency in math and 65.8 percent failed to proficiency on Georgia’s statewide Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRPT), according to the Atlanta Public Schools (APS-CEP) Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) Report.

These results were based only on 56 identified full academic year (FAY) math test participants and 57 FAY reading test participants, Edwards said.

Edwards presented some internal CEP statistics for the 2006-2007 school year: The average student enrolled at the CEP in 2006-2007 was reading and performing math at a 3rd grade level and the average length of placement was 109 days.

For students enrolled 150 days or more the average growth in reading level was 3.2 years and the average math level growth was 4 years, according to CEP’s internal data.

For students enrolled less than 90 days, the average reading level growth was 2.2 years and the average math level growth was 2.8 years.

"There is no expectation that students performing at 3rd or 4th grade reading and math levels will pass their grade equivalent skills test in an average placement of 109 days," Edwards said.

Middle school students enrolled for 150 plus days passed an average of 6.7 courses. High school students enrolled as long earned an average of 5 credits.

CEP’s internal data states that Forrest Hills Academy students in grades six, seven, and eight have increased their total, combined percentage points in growth in CRPT math, ELA, and reading by 59 percent over the last year and 70 percent over the last two.

ATLANTA CEP

From 2002 until mid-2007, the CEP school operated on a campus in Bankhead near the former Perry Homes public housing community.

Benetta Standly, Statewide Organizer for the ACLU of Georgia, toured the old campus in March 2007 and told APN it was "atrocious."

Students did not appear to be properly supervised and there were a large number of fights while she was there, Standly said.

"It is an environment that is not necessarily conductive to education," Standly said. "It just seems to function more as a detention center."

In the summer of 2007, CEP moved to a brand new school on Cleveland Avenue for the 2007-2008 school year.

"I think the improvements that have been made have been structural and superficial," Standly said of the new school. "On the old campus, there were classrooms where there [were] no teachers. I hope that is not the same."

Edwards said the ACLU has made their allegations without visiting the school.

While Standly did visit the old campus, she has only seen the outside of the new school.

She and Chara Fisher Jackson, ACLU of Georgia’s legal program director, both told APN they have been denied multiple requests to take a tour of the new school.

The ACLU has spent a year and a half holding community forums where CEP students and their parents have been able to voice their concerns, Standly said.

These discussions revealed all students are required to wear uniforms and are subject to full-body pat down searches each day. Boys and girls have to lift up their shirts in front of everyone, the ACLU learned. Atlanta police officers guard all the entrances and are heavily armed.

Students are not allowed to carry book bags, the ACLU also learned. Watches, jewelry, purses, combs, brushes, keys, and money in excess of five dollars are all considered contraband and are strictly prohibited. Girls are not even permitted to bring tampons into the building.

HOW STUDENTS END UP AT CEP

The ACLU charges students are often arbitrarily placed in the CEP school and are given few meaningful chances to appeal compulsory assignments to the school.

"Students are referred to the CEP Program by the APS System because they have violated the District’s Code of Student Conduct," Edwards told APN. "These students are also typically reading and performing math at or below the 4th grade level, have been retained in grade, and are not passing the state skills test."

But 30 percent of students assigned to the CEP in 2005-2006 were sent there because of non-disciplinary reasons, according to CEP data.

Standly argues the CEP school has become "a warehouse for all kinds of kids," such as those diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, those who do not test well, or those that have a disability that is classified as disruptive.

"I think kids who don’t test well need test services to help them test better," she said. "I don’t think they need to be isolated and punished."

No tolerance behavior policies in APS are leading to increased numbers in alternative schools, Standly said.

"I think when a kid got involved in a fight or called the teacher the 'b word' or didn’t answer a question, those problems were usually handled by the teacher, the principal, and the parent," Standly said. "Something that minor is now becoming a problem."

Edwards said once the students have been assigned to the school, they have a chance to appeal.

Parents are sent the following notice during Tribunal Hearings:

"You are notified that you have the right to appeal the decision to the Atlanta Board of Education. The appeal must be in writing and distinctly set forth the question in dispute, the decision of the Tribunal, and a concise statement of the reasons why the decision is appealed. Any such appeal must be filed with Dr. Beverly Hall, Superintendent and mailed to 130 Trinity Avenue. SW, Atlanta, GA 30303 within twenty (20) days of the decision of the Tribunal. The Board of Education will review the decision based solely on the evidence submitted to the Tribunal, and no new evidence or testimony will be considered."

Of the 498 children who left the CEP in 2005-2006, 75 percent did not return to an Atlanta public school and 40 percent of those were expelled or removed for lack of attendance.

It is not clear what happened to the students who did not return to an APS school, although it is possible they transferred to Fulton, Dekalb, or another county, or are being home schooled.

Standly said there is no evidence, based on her research that students ever return to their original schools.

"From parents I talked to, they have tried over and over to appeal to the Principal and Vice Principal to get their child to go back to their original school [with no success]," Standly said.

Edwards said students must meet certain criteria in order to return to their regular schools: an 80 percent attendance rate, no more than two behavior write-ups per semester, and a one year growth in reading and math as well as passing four of five subjects.

Attendance rates at CEP are low. Forty-two percent of all Atlanta CEP students missed 15 or more days during the 2005-2006 school year. Just 8.4 percent of all students in the rest of the Atlanta school system missed as much time, according to the APS-CEP 2006 AYP Overview Report.

STUDENT FIGHTING AND OTHER PROBLEMS

APS reported 260 cases of battery, 172 cases of vandalism, and 122 cases of weapons for the 2005-2006 school year for the whole city. A high proportion of these battery and vandalism cases at CEP.

"There were 176 cases of battery reported at CEP," Edwards said.

"These incidents were improperly coded in the reporting system," Edwards added. "Any student incident involving pushing, shoving, or physical altercation was coded as a battery, which is incorrect under the state reporting system. This has been corrected."

"There were 79 cases of vandalism reported at the CEP campus in 2005-06. These incidents were improperly coded in the reporting system. Any student incident involving marking on a desk, marking on a bathroom wall, damage to computers were incorrectly coded as vandalism in the reporting system. This has been corrected," Edwards said.

"There were no gun possessions at the CEP campus in 2005-06. Two students brought BB guns to the school, both of which were confiscated during the entry screening process," Edwards said.

LACK OF PROPER FACILITIES AND STAFF

The ACLU alleges the school has no cafeteria, gym, or library.

Edwards said students are served breakfast and lunch, on par with other public schools, in the commons area of each small learning community.

Edwards said the school has two “recreation areas” and students participate in two weekly recreation periods.

He added each learning community has 24 computers with online capability for students to complete needed research.

The ACLU also charges teachers are not experienced enough or do not have enough education to properly serve the CEP students.

Fifty-five percent of the teachers have less than one year of teaching experience and not one teacher has more than 10, according to the 2005-2006 APS-CEP Annual School Report Card.

Edwards said all 20 teachers at the CEP are all properly certified.

COMMUNITY REACTIONS

Joe Beasley, Southern Regional Director for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, recently took a tour of Forrest Hills Academy with other community activists and religious leaders, but said the tour lasted less than one hour and he did not see the entire facility.

"I expected a negative kind of setting, if you will, but when I got there, what I saw, I thought it was rather impressive," Beasley told Atlanta Progressive News. "I didn’t see what I anticipated seeing."

"I expected some draconian nightmare, kids held against their will. I didn’t see the horror stories," Beasley said, adding, "I’m not prepared to make any real judgment about it because it was a short experience."

Darryl Winston, President of the Greater American Ministerial Alliance and Atlanta pastor, said he has been involved with this issue for three years.

Winston toured CEP along with Beasley in part because of the ACLU’s allegations, he said.

"Until all the facts come out, we want the Atlanta Board of Education to take these matters seriously," Winston said. "We think that at a minimum, the Board of Education, as well as State of Georgia, needs to…do their own investigation."About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for The Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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