A new partnership between a for-profit company and the Pittsburgh Public Schools may lead to an education model more like a "prison system," some residents worry.
More than 60 concerned parents, school-board members and local activists gathered in East Liberty's Reizenstein Middle School on Aug. 24 to voice concerns about the district's contract with Community Education Partners. CEP plans to house 432 of the district's most behaviorally and academically challenged sixth- to 12th-graders, but some expressed doubts about the plan, in which students from feuding sections of the city will be brought together in the North Side's former Clayton Elementary School.
"It's a real issue," said parent Ronell Guy, "and I don't think they recognize that." Guy worried that her own son, a 14-year-old currently attending Perry Traditional Academy High School on the North Side, would be "a perfect candidate" for the program. She said her son has always struggled academically, and now she's worried that he might be referred to the alternative school.
"The North Side can't get along with the East End," added Mark Brentley, who was one of only two school-board members to vote against allowing CEP to open in the district. (Jean Fink was the other.)
Ken Thomas, chief of CEP's national operations, and Dr. Kaye Cupples, Pittsburgh Public Schools' director of support services, sought to allay such concerns.
Cupples said CEP is meant to be an "intervention" to help improve student behavior and achievement. The ultimate goal, however, is to steer them back into their regular school environment.
"There is a small percentage of students in the district that needs something more than regular schools can offer," Cupples said.
To quell safety concerns, Thomas told the audience that CEP is designed to "minimize conflict." He said the 10.8-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in each "learning community" will keep students supervised at all times.
Learning communities consist of four classrooms with a maximum of 27 students in each class. Students will rotate between classes within their learning communities throughout the day under the constant supervision of teachers. Instead of a large cafeteria to serve the entire school, students will eat with their class in their own common area. Restrooms are also located within each learning community, and there are no lockers for students to store weapons or other illegal items.
Such precautions are meant to cut down on fights and other confrontations. But they also prompted fears that kids would be treated more like inmates than students.
"CEP means 'Children Enslaved in Prisons,'" said community activist Paradise Gray.
"That's a prison model," added Guy. "These kids need motivation, not incarceration."
But Dr. Leroy Tompkins, chief academic and accountability officer for CEP, disagrees.
"I'm not sure why people think it's a prison," he said. "CEP prevents kids from going to prison."
"There is no life sentence here," agreed Cupples.
Still, others said they will be keeping a close eye on CEP.
"We must put these peoples' feet to the fire," said school-board member Randall Taylor, who voted in favor of the district's partnership with CEP. "We can't allow the students to be used just for people to make money."
The district will pay CEP about $3.5 million per year to operate the school.
According to CEP statistics, graduate rates at Orange County Public Schools in Florida increased from 59.8 percent in 2001 -- the year before they partnered with CEP -- to 72.2 percent in 2006. State score increases in math at CEP were also the highest in the district.
"We don't promise the world," said Tompkins, "but we can help these kids get back on track. The structure works."
Still, CEP has been accused in some cities of withholding data from school officials, and some residents are skeptical.
"We're still unclear on some things," said Lucille Prater-Holliday of the Black Women's Empowerment Institute, which sponsored the forum. "There are a lot of questions about this company."
According to Frederick Douglas, board member of the North Side Urban Pathways Charter School, disruptive behavior and poor academic performance are a result of the failure of the education system. Douglas is concerned that the CEP model "warehouses" students, and he hopes those attending the school won't be considered "out of sight, out of mind."
"We are dealing with the lives of human beings," he said. "The onus is on CEP. Results will be demanded."