This fall, the old Armstrong High School building will house RPS’ in-house alter-native school. Photo by Jay Paul
It's graduation day, and parents and students have packed the cafeteria at Capital City Program. The room brims with rising ninth-graders and their proud parents, all dressed to the nines.
Next school year, these graduates of Richmond's nearly 10-year-old alternative-education program will return to their home high schools after 180 days served in CCP's remediation program with improved grades, improved attendance and with the hope — according to CCP's administrators — of a new chance at success.
Two years ago, few celebrations occurred at CCP. But things changed with the arrival of a new outside contractor, Pennsylvania-based Success Schools.
With students and parents gathered in the cafeteria for eighth-grade graduation, Robert J. Lysek, chief operations officer and co-founder of Success Schools, a division of Specialized Education Services Inc., shared their smiles. But he also spent the day fretting over the possibility that his program faced expulsion at the Richmond School Board's meeting the next week.
As it happens, Lysek's worst fears came true. The board's decision to take no action on the contract means that CCP — and with it Success Schools — is closed. This fall, the district plans to open its own in-house alternative school in the old Armstrong High building on Leigh Street, where it will share quarters with other district alternative programs.
But CCP's closure may or may not be the end for Success Schools in Richmond. Company executives plan to continue conversations with Richmond Public Schools. And board members say they may well be open to such conversations as they move forward with their in-house effort.
"The board has ... talked about whether we should also consider — for the long term — should we consider [seeking] an outside group to help us craft this into a comprehensive program," says 4th District School Board representative Kristen Larson.
Success Schools hopes to be back before they're missed. The company arrived at CCP only two years ago, brought in to rescue the ailing program.
In 2004, Richmond Public Schools first hired Tennessee-based Community Education Partners to operate an alternative-education program in the almost 100-year-old Baker Street School building near Gilpin Court. The school served as a place to send students considered too challenging for their home schools for six months of remediation. Some were sent by their principals. Others came by court order.
Despite public condemnations — many leaders in the black community labeled the program "Colored Children's Prison" — things seemed to be going swimmingly. In January 2009, the day before his swearing-in, Mayor Dwight C. Jones penned an editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch singing the school's praises.
He touted its success as a model for Richmond's long-challenged schools, saying that in 2007, "the CCP was Virginia's only disciplinary alternative school to achieve state accreditation under the SOL program — and it has done so again in 2008." Jones "was getting ready to give us a new school," says former principal Alberta Person, recalling that they were "picking a site in the East End — we were to the point almost of signing the lease."
Then the mayor abruptly pulled the plug. After that, CCP operated under ever-darkening clouds.
In 2011, Community Education Partners, under pressure from the district, subcontracted with Success Schools for special-education services it couldn't provide on its own. Keeping its lucrative contract with RPS, it effectively pulled out of the school, leaving Success Schools to run things.
From the beginning there were problems, says Lysek. Because Community Education Partners remained the contractor, Success Schools was required to retain staff they inherited, and under-qualified teachers were foisted on Success Schools, says Lysek. He says his company received calls from Community Education Partners representatives informing them that RPS would send a new teacher and that they should find a place for that person. "At [the] direction of [then-Superintendent] Dr. [Yvonne] Brandon, we continued to operate the program with staff that we believed were not best suited to work with this population," Lysek says. At the direction of Dr. Brandon, three quarters of the staff were holdovers from Community Education Partners, he notes, but if he had his druthers, "I'd say about 90 percent of that would not have been hired."
Success Schools provided Richmond magazine with a staff directory. A review comparing it with the Virginia Department of Education teacher licensure database revealed that of 32 teachers on staff, 13 were unlicensed. None of the 13 held provisional licenses as required in order to teach. Four held lead teacher positions.
Calls to Community Education Partners for comment were not returned. School Board members told of the unlicensed teachers said they were not surprised. RPS administration had no comment by press time.
Even without that information, the mayor's special Schools Task Force, appointed during the 2012 schools budget crisis to find cost savings, singled out CCP. The school's operating contract — costing $4.6 million yearly — was by far the most expensive outside contract for Richmond Public Schools.
"We're saving more than $2 million by bringing it in house," Larson says, unwilling to judge Success Schools' efforts. She visited the school ahead of the board's vote and had kind words for improvements she'd witnessed, but, she says, "I don't have any data to show that ... this is what happened since the subcontractors were involved."
Students at the school say they've seen a clear delineation between CCP under Success Schools' management and under that of Community Education Partners.
"It was the worst," says Amber Cook, 18, a student in the Capital City Program on and off since her ninth-grade year. "[Teachers] would just close the door and let the students fight." By Cook's 11th-grade year, the first year Success Schools took over, she says things changed dramatically. "I feel like I'm ready to face the world; to face my future."
The School Board has asked RPS administrators to develop a plan to bring the alternative-school program and its roughly 320 student slots in house. But board members are split on whether cost effectiveness will equal educational effectiveness in a district with a record of mixed results and one of the highest dropout rates in the state.
"[RPS] administration has at least given us two reports on what it would take for the school system to run its own alternative school, but neither of those reports included the curriculum or what the day would look like — they talked about the cost," says 8th District School Board representative Tichi Pinkney Eppes, weighing carefully the savings to be had with the district's projected $2.5 million cost estimate against the more robust curriculum and proven national track record of Success Schools.
Larson says she has more confidence in what the RPS administration has put forward, noting that she's especially pleased with revisions presented to the board ahead of its decision not to renew the Community Education Partners contract. She particularly likes the fact that having an in-house effort provides the district with the ability to make rapid changes, either to expand things that work or to drop parts that don't. "The program has a lot of room to grow over the next couple of years as it develops," she says.
And a lot of room to make mistakes, says Eppes, who points to the district's past failures in providing programs for at-risk kids. "RPS is not going to be able to do it — I have no confidence in their ability."