Howard Bullard had barely stepped inside one of Clayton Academy's classrooms before he was confronted with a discipline problem.
"You have to talk to him," the teacher told the principal, motioning toward a middle-school student in front of her. The boy had pulled his shirt over his eyes, his forehead planted on a table.
"Don't touch me!" the student snapped as Bullard put his hands on his shoulders, asking what was wrong. "I got a headache, dog." Bullard calmed the boy down, telling him to relax for a few minutes. Even before Bullard left, the student's head was back on the desk.
It could be worse, says Bullard, who became the school's second principal last summer. "We don't have the fights and chaos that happened in the past," he says.
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 has been in charge of educating the Pittsburgh school district's most academically and behaviorally challenged 6th- through 12th-grade students.
It's been a rocky experience. In its first year, school officials admit, students were brawling more than learning, and staff were quitting right and left. City police told City Paper last year that Clayton was "on our radar."
This year, however, officials say there have been noticeable improvements at the school, which currently has more than 200 students. And during two recent school visits (one scheduled, another unannounced), a CP reporter witnessed no major meltdowns.
When it comes to academics, though, doubts remain. Early evidence suggests students who attend the program lapse into old habits once they leave, and even Pittsburgh Superintendent Mark Roosevelt has concerns about Clayton's academic rigor.
"They're getting their act together, but there are still significant issues," says Roosevelt, who credits CP's previous stories for helping to spur changes at the school. Two years into the six-year contract with CEP, "[The district] has not yet drawn the line and said, 'OK, CEP is a success.'"
The school has its champions. At a March 16 school-board meeting, roughly a dozen students, parents and teachers praised Clayton Academy.
"[My nephew's] entire attitude has changed since he's been at Clayton," testified Darrell Goodwine. "Clayton has helped him build his self-esteem."
Many credit such success to Bullard, a former district administrator and principal at Schenley High School, who took over after Clayton's first principal quit. Valerie Lauw, who also spoke at the public hearing, says her 10th-grade daughter, Diva, has "turned around" while at the school. Bullard, Lauw says, is "an angel served from heaven."
Bullard himself attributes the improvements to decreases in disciplinary problems. "If behavior is disruptive," he says, "they're not going to learn."
Indeed, the Clayton motto is "Be here. Behave. Be learning." As with other CEP schools in Atlanta, Houston, Orlando and Philadelphia, Clayton stresses structure. Students wear uniforms -- green shirts tucked into khaki pants -- and are taught in small, highly supervised classes. Bullard says the student/teacher ratio is about 7-to-1, and boys and girls are kept separate to eliminate distractions.
"Howard has the respect of the students," says Randle Richardson, who is the CEO of CEP. "That's very important." But Richardson also attributes improvements to the program's maturation. "In our first year ... we typically get a lot of [behavioral] incidents," he says, speaking by phone from Texas. While "We get a lot of pushback from the kids" early on, he says, over time students buy into the culture.
But ultimately, the goal is to get the students out of Clayton, returning them to their "home schools" when their behavior improves. And so far, at least, it's not clear the students are any better off when that happens.
CEP claims its students are making huge strides. According to company statistics, in just one year or less, Clayton's high school students have jumped an average of four grade levels in reading skills. The same students have increased by five grade levels in math, CEP claims.
Similarly, CEP says middle-school students have jumped by three grade levels in reading, and more than four grade levels in math -- again, all in one year or less.
Roosevelt says that while he is "generally a supporter of the [CEP] program," he thinks "those numbers are unrealistic. ... When someone is trying to tell me that [students] have gotten three years of learning in a year, my eyebrows go up."
The district's own data paints a much less optimistic picture of CEP's performance.
District staff have 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 classes teaching 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 it was before the transfer to Clayton.
Roosevelt cautions that 18 students is too small a sample to draw conclusions. (Out of 446 students who have entered Clayton, 59 have been returned to their original schools.) Still, he says, the anecdotal evidence suggests CEP's "academic rigor may not be sufficient. Those grade disparities for me are too significant to think ..." he says, trailing off. "They're just interesting."
"I too would question how serious the academic work really is," says school-board member Jean Fink, who in 2007 was one of two board members who voted against the district's contract with CEP.
Bullard and Richardson say the grade disparities have nothing to do with CEP's curriculum: Clayton uses the same curriculum as other city schools, they say. Instead, they contend the numbers reflect challenges in the rest of the district.
"What [Clayton] offers that is not offered in the public schools is ... individual attention," says Richardson. "I don't doubt that students won't make as many A's and B's when they go back [to their home schools], because they are not getting the same amount of individual attention."
But CEP has been attacked for a lack of effectiveness elsewhere, too. In 2002, the Dallas school system terminated its five-year contract with CEP after just three years. "The model of education provided by [CEP] was untenable," the district concluded in a report.
In Georgia, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the company last March, claiming that it offers no functional curriculum, that its teachers are unqualified and that "[g]rades are given out haphazardly." CEP has denied the ACLU's allegations, some of which have been tossed out by a judge, while others are still pending.
At Clayton, part of the problem is a high rate of turnover among the school's faculty, which consists of roughly two dozen teachers and aides. Before the current school year started, Bullard says, five teachers handed in their resignations. "That was tough," he says.
"What we do is not for everyone," acknowledges Richardson, who says roughly 25 percent of Clayton's teachers left after the first school year. He expects a similar percentage to leave this year, because dealing with troubled students is "stressful."
Roosevelt says CEP has succeeded in at least one area. Because district schools now have a place to transfer troubled students, he says, "Our suspension numbers are way down. Good news."
But Roosevelt says he's less sure CEP helps those actually in the program -- especially over the long term.
"There are many people ... who question the whole concept of a pull-out model, in which you return kids to their original environment," he says. "The kids got into a whole lot of trouble, and didn't work out well in their home-school environment: Why do you return them to it?
"I'm not proposing that CEP become a full five-year endeavor for these kids," Roosevelt adds. "But I do wonder what happens to them next."