Depending on who you talk to, the North Side's Clayton Academy could either be the best thing that's ever happened to Pittsburgh's most troubled students, or the worst.
The problem is that, three semesters after the North Side school opened under private management, school board members still don't know who to believe.
"We need to see something, and the sooner the better," says board member Jean Fink. "I would like to see what kind of progress there is."
Since the start of the 2007-08 school year, Community Education Partners (CEP) -- a private, Nashville-based alternative education company -- has been in charge of educating the city district's most academically and behaviorally challenged 6-12th-grade students.
The company claims its students are making huge strides. According to internal progress reports furnished by CEO Randle Richardson, high-school students in CEP's program have jumped an average of four grade levels in reading skill -- all in a period of between 121 and 180 days. The same students have increased by five grade levels in math. Similarly, the statistics say that middle-school students have -- in the space of one academic year or less -- jumped by three grade levels in reading, and more than four grade levels in math.
"What kind of tests are they using?" Fink asks, when informed of the numbers. "I find that to be quite remarkable, if it's true. It seems odd that [scores] would go up so much. ... Kids typically don't jump to that level in 120 days." And Clayton's students aren't honor students, she notes, but the district's most troubled.
Richardson says that when students arrive at CEP, they are given a baseline test to determine their proficiency in reading and math. Usually, the students test well below average. They are then retested periodically to see how they've improved, he says.
When asked what kind of test students are being given, Richardson wrote in an e-mail, "It is a test we agreed to administer in our contract" with the district.
But the contract provides no specifics about testing students. It requires only that CEP's program "parallels the core curriculum, core courses and grading scale utilized by the [district]." And there appears to be confusion about just how much information CEP has provided to the district.
Richardson says the company has sent school officials the data provided to CP, and that it recently sent more detailed information on the performance of individual students. District administrators, however, say they are still awaiting key data.
"We received what we consider a preliminary report and have requested additional information be included," wrote district spokesperson Ebony Pugh in an e-mail.
Board members, meanwhile, say they haven't received any information about Clayton Academy. And at least one elected official remains skeptical of CEP's claims.
"We know there is no learning going on there," says board member Mark Brentley Sr.
Brentley has been a vocal critic of the school from the outset, echoing complaints made by some parents.
"[Students] weren't learning anything," says Rene Seymour, whose granddaughter was kicked out of CEP last winter, due to complaints of chronic behavioral problems at the school. "[Teachers] were just giving them grades. They never had homework. Just show up, be quiet and that's it."
Fink and Brentley -- who rarely agree on much -- were the only two board members to vote against CEP's six-year, $5.7 million annual contract in 2007. Both were concerned about complaints lodged against the company in cities like Houston, Dallas and Atlanta.
The Dallas school system terminated its five-year contract with CEP in 2002, after three years, concluding that it wasn't properly serving students. "The model of education provided by [CEP] was untenable," the district concluded in its report.
Dallas school officials claimed CEP relied heavily on non-certified teachers. In addition, they were concerned by the company's refusal to issue its budget data to the district, and uncertain how CEP was spending its money.
A City Paper report last winter detailed similar concerns about CEP's operation in Pittsburgh. Given the number of fights and disruptions at the school, city police said Clayton Academy was "on our radar." Parents claimed the school was a "war zone," rather than a learning environment.
In Georgia, meanwhile, the ACLU has sued CEP on behalf of eight students. The lawsuit, filed in March, claims that CEP has no functional curriculum, its teachers are unqualified and "Grades are given out haphazardly."
"[CEP] is providing a grotesquely inadequate education," says Emily Chiang, an ACLU attorney in the case. "Kids are doing crossword puzzles, teachers aren't teaching." The program "is not really a school," she contends, but "a training ground preparing kids to be prisoners."
Richardson dismisses the lawsuit, saying it's simply part of the ACLU's broader campaign against alternative schools. "I think [the ACLU] is wrong," he says, arguing that the group has never visited the school to witness firsthand how it operates. "Our belief is that the judge will dismiss the lawsuit entirely."
In fact, some of the ACLU's charges have already been dismissed. Others have been amended since their original filing. But some claims -- like the ACLU's claims that students are subjected to unlawful search and seizure -- are still pending.
District solicitor Ira Weiss says the Atlanta lawsuit "certainly alerts the district" here in Pittsburgh. But he says officials haven't heard such allegations here. "If we got any hint that there was a lack of academics, we would react very quickly."
At least for now, the district plans "to continue working with CEP," says spokesperson Pugh. The district plans to increase enrollment at Clayton from 227 to roughly 430. As for the ACLU's suit, "We don't have knowledge of what the lawsuit entails," she says. "We're not aware of the details."
Some school board members favor a wait-and-see approach. Board member Randall Taylor acknowledges that negative reports about CEP have him "concerned about the vote I cast" to hire the company. But he says the program is still in its infancy.
"I know they're having some issues, but you want to give ... CEP some breathing space," says Taylor. "After you give them time, you can start scrutinizing them."
Brentley, however, isn't willing to wait.
CEP and the district are "not sharing information open and honestly," he says. "That concerns me." He already plans to present legislation that will begin the process of closing the school.
"It's [the district's] responsibility to get these kids out," Brentley says. "Shut it down."