Pinellas joins Orange and Bay counties in hiring a private company to deal with disruptive students.
The Pinellas County school district built the $11-million school, which opened last month, and pays for feeding, transporting and educating the students it transfers there because they are too disruptive at their previous schools.
The principal and teachers at the school, however, aren't district employees. They are hired and paid by Nashville, Tenn.-based Community Education Partners, a private firm that now operates 11 such schools across the country, from Texas to Pennsylvania, including schools in Orange and Bay counties in Florida.
The company, which generates $60 million in revenue, has developed an educational approach it says works with students who "don't fit in the regular classroom," says Randle Richardson, CEO and founder of CEP.
The program includes a private-school type approach and a strictly controlled disciplinary environment. Boys and girls are separated and wear uniforms. Hallways are strictly monitored. CEP says it aims to return students to their regular classrooms after 180 days. But most students stay longer, says Deana Costner, CEP's southeast regional vice president.
Orange County Public Schools has had a CEP program for about three years. CEP students at one campus have shown slight improvements, according to FCAT records. In 2003, 24% of 10th-graders had FCAT math skills above level 3; in 2004, 30% tested above level 3. Level 5 is the highest. Reading scores improved by two percentage points from 2003 to 2004.
School districts pay CEP about twice what they get from the state to educate students. Pinellas, for example, will spend $8,100 this year for each child at Oak Park.
But some school officials aren't convinced the districts should be outsourcing education. "On the surface, it looks great," says Mary Russell, a Pinellas County School Board member who voted against the CEP contract. "It's when you delve down into the specifics that you're going to find problems."
Russell says CEP didn't really prove that its programs work. She believes the district could provide some of the same services -- without the additional cost.
But Tim Haley, a retired Pinellas County principal who is now Oak Park's principal, says CEP's approach works precisely because, as a private company, it has much more flexibility than public schools.
Once the disruptive students are out of the system, teachers can make more progress with the rest of their students, Haley says. "The bottom line to me is that if we do our job at CEP, it's the public schools that will reap the benefits," he says.