These For-Profit Schools Are ‘Like a Prison’

Source: Sarah Carr, Francesca Berardi, Zoë Kirsch and Stephen Smiley, ProPublica, March 8, 2017

… Over six months in 2013 and 2014, about a half-dozen parents, students and community members at Paramount Academy — billed as a “therapeutic” day program — complained of abusive behavior by the school’s staff. … Thirteen Camelot students have alleged in interviews or documents that they were shoved, beaten, or thrown — assaults almost always referred to as “slamming” — by Camelot staff members, usually for the sin of talking back, in separate incidents that span 10 years and three states. … Two additional students, and five Camelot staff members, say they have personally witnessed beatings or physical aggression by staff. The abuse allegedly occurred in Camelot programs in Reading; Lancaster; Philadelphia; New Orleans; and Pensacola, Florida. … Despite such allegations, Camelot has continued to expand. It contracts with traditional school districts to run about 40 schools across the country — schools that serve kids who have gotten into trouble, have emotional or behavioral issues, or have fallen far behind academically. In 2015, Camelot reported more than $77 million in revenue, more than a third from contracts with the school districts of Philadelphia, Houston, and Chicago. … About half a million students in the United States attend alternative schools, which are publicly funded but often managed by private, for-profit companies such as Camelot. Camelot’s story illustrates the risk that for-profit schools, which are favored by the Trump administration and new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, may put earnings ahead of student welfare. It also exposes the dismal educational options available to some students that traditional high schools don’t want to serve, because they are disruptive, severely disabled, years behind in school, or have criminal backgrounds.

… Add it all up, skeptics say, and the Camelot experience starts to resemble the nation’s incarceration system: racially biased, isolated, punitive, unnecessarily violent and designed, above all else, to maintain obedience and control. … Public school districts typically contract with Camelot to run one of three types of programs: “transitional schools” for kids with behavior issues; “therapeutic programs” for those with special behavioral and emotional needs; and “accelerated programs” for students who have fallen far behind. … Most Camelot students share two characteristics. They are nearly all poor. And they are overwhelmingly peopleof color. … The incidents at Camelot tended to follow a similar pattern, according to multiple accounts from students and staff members. Nonacademic staff members (usually the behavioral specialists and team leaders but sometimes higher-level employees) were permitted by administrators and school leaders to manhandle students as a form of intimidation — whether the teenagers had acted out or not. They preyed most often on students who had the least recourse to complain: social pariahs whose parents were disengaged or unable to advocate effectively, because they didn’t speak English, for instance. School leaders condoned the abuse and in some cases even encouraged it, according to Jandy Rivera and others. … In most middle- and upper-income communities, parents provide an informal yet crucial form of accountability for schools — protesting, and even suing over, mistreatment of their children. But this safety net is largely missing in the Camelot schools, where parents lack the knowledge, confidence, resources or language skills to complain. Those who have come forward say that few people in positions of power, including school officials, lawyers and police officers, take them seriously — if they listen at all. …

Can a Private Company Teach Troubled Kids?
Source: Alexia Fernandez Campbell, The Atlantic, August 27, 2016

Disruptive students are a headache for public schools. They distract from lessons, skip class, and often bring down the graduation rates. That’s why school districts across the country have resorted to opening alternative schools in recent decades, with hopes that smaller classes and individual attention might help these students get their diplomas. But even these alternative schools (which differ from charter schools in that they are still part of school districts and thus answer to superintendents) can be a burden: They’re expensive to run, and their graduation rates are still pretty low. Desperate for help, many school districts are now hiring private companies to manage these alternative schools and educate their most troublesome students. … Richmond is one of the latest cities to experiment with outsourcing education. In July, the city hired a Texas-based company called Camelot Education to run the Richmond Alternative School, which last year served 223 students from across the city in grades 6 through 11. Nearly all of the students at Richmond Alternative are black (97 percent) and most are poor (87 percent qualify for free lunches). Some black parents once dubbed it the “colored children’s prison” and it has been criticized for contributing to what’s called the school-to-prison pipeline—Virginia is the state that refers the most students to law enforcement. …

… The turn to the private sector is not new for Richmond. In 2004, the city hired a private company to run a previous iteration of its alternative school, which was then called the Capital City Program. The $4.6 million agreement with a Tennessee-based company called Community Education Partners was the school district’s most expensive contract that year. … The quality of the education provided by Community Education Partners turned out to be substandard, according to a Richmond Magazine investigation, which found that a third of the school’s teachers were not credentialed. Elsewhere, schools run by Community Education Partners were not faring much better. The American Civil Liberties Union in Georgia sued the company in 2008 for allegedly providing “fundamentally inferior” education to students at an alternative school in Atlanta—an environment “so violent and intimidating that learning is all but impossible.” Atlanta canceled its contract with the company, and a year later, so did the city of Philadelphia. …

… The teachers who have been working at Richmond Alternative the past few years will have an opportunity to interview for teaching positions with Camelot, Bock says, but, if hired, they will be required to undergo the company’s de-escalation and behavior modification training. Companies such as Camelot can pay teachers less if they choose to, as they are not subject to collective bargaining agreements with the local teachers’ union. … This may be the first time that Richmond will work with Camelot, but data on the company’s presence in Philadelphia provides a fuller picture of its track record. Camelot was one of half a dozen companies running Philadelphia’s alternative schools in the past decade, the largest experiment in privatizing alternative education to date. …