Last March, Pittsburgh school officials gave the district's academy for chronically troubled students a mixed report card -- high marks for student behavior, low marks for academic rigor.
And nearly a year later, the private company managing the North Side school is struggling to maintain programs in other districts. School-board members in Pittsburgh, meanwhile, say they can only guess whether the school's academics have improved.
"We have not gotten any numbers," says board member Jean Fink. "Where [the school] stands academically I really don't know."
Since the start of the 2007-08 school year, Clayton Academy has been operated by Community Education Partners (CEP) -- a private, Nashville-based alternative-education company. The company, currently in the third year of a five-year, $18 million contract, has been in charge of educating Pittsburgh's most academically and behaviorally challenged students in grades six through 12.
So far, it's been a bumpy ride. As City Paper first reported in 2009, school officials admitted that discipline problems were rampant in the school's first year, and staff members were quitting right and left. Disruptions lessened significantly in the school's second year, but academic performance was harder to measure.
Last March, a statistical report suggested that once they left Clayton, CEP students tended to revert to old habits.
District staff tracked 18 students who returned to their home schools after going through CEP's program. Before attending Clayton, those students scored A's and B's in only 11.2 percent of core subjects like math and English. At Clayton, the percentage of A's and B's soared to 55.6 percent. After the students returned to their home schools, though, that percentage plummeted to 10.6 percent -- meaning their performance was no better than before their transfer to Clayton.
"I'd like to see another report," says board member Theresa Colaizzi today. "What happens when [students] come back to their home schools? That's what I need an answer to."
"I can tell you there is improvement" from last year, says Jan Ripper, the district's executive director of alternative programming. "I'm very pleased with the progress."
But even though Clayton has completed nearly two full semesters since that last report in March, Ripper couldn't provide CP with reports on student progress since then. Yet though she says she has yet to compile such data, she cites day-to-day progress she's seen at the school as evidence of improvement. After Clayton's current semester ends, in February, she says, "I'm planning on putting a report together for the board."
In the past year, Ripper says, 69 students have graduated from Clayton and returned to their home schools. Another 30 are expected to complete the CEP program next month.
Ripper says teachers now attend professional-development seminars with the district, in addition to receiving instruction from CEP curriculum specialists. And Clayton's students are benefiting from improved instruction, she says.
"We wanted to concentrate on academic rigor," says Ripper, noting that Clayton uses the same curriculum and tests as the rest of the district. "We knew that needed to be strengthened."
But as Pittsburgh school officials await progress reports, the number of CEP operations across the country is dwindling. In fact, the program risks losing its first, and largest, client.
Early last year, the school board for Houston Independent School District unanimously approved a new five-year, $100 million contract with CEP -- renewing a relationship that began in 1997. But the district's new superintendent, upset that the district has never once evaluated CEP's operation, recently announced that he's considering canceling the deal.
"Are we educating our children, or do we have children in a holding pattern?" Superintendent Terry Grier asked the Houston Chronicle in December. (Grier did not return phone calls from CP.)
It's just the latest challenge CEP has faced. In recent years, districts in Texas, Florida and South Carolina have severed ties with the company. Last May, they were joined by the Atlanta Public Schools, where CEP had run an alternative school since 2002.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against CEP and the Atlanta district in March 2008, claiming the private company conducted unlawful search and seizures and had no functional curriculum. Some of the allegations were tossed out by a judge; the ACLU dropped the others once Atlanta let the contract expire.
Randle Richardson, CEP's CEO, says he doesn't fear losing Houston as a client. "[The superintendent] wants to evaluate the program," he says, noting that his company still operates schools in three Florida counties, as well as in Philadelphia and Richmond, Va. As for Atlanta, Richardson argues that CEP was dropped just so the district could make the ACLU suit go away. (The district also recently developed its own in-house alternative-education program.)
And in Pittsburgh, at least, some school officials are willing to give CEP the benefit of the doubt a little longer. "What happens in other districts, does that cross our radar? Sure," says Mark Roosevelt, Pittsburgh's school superintendent. "But [Clayton] is an individual school and staff."
Colaizzi also favors giving CEP more time before switching companies or bringing the program in-house. Even so, she says, "At the end of the day, this is still a for-profit school. And I have to worry that the dollar is not the most important thing to [CEP]."
School-board member Mark Brentley's mind is already made up.
"[The company] is in limbo," says Brentley, an early critic of the program. "This administration doesn't know when to fold."