March 30, 2017

Philly, 2 other cities question for-profit manager of alternative schools

Education Schools
03302017_Camelot_Academy_GM Google/StreetView

Camelot Education operates this alternative school at 1435 N. 26th St. in North Philadelphia. Some Philadelphia officials are seeking more information about the company, citing parental and community concern about inappropriate discipline practices at Camelot.

Officials in three cities are rethinking their relationship with for-profit Camelot Education, which runs alternative programs for more than 3,000 students with emotional, behavioral or academic difficulties.

In Philadelphia, a councilwoman is seeking more information about the city's alternative schools, including their disciplinary practices, in the wake of a report on alleged physical abuse of students by Camelot staff members. Camelot has a contract with the Philadelphia school district for almost $10 million a year to run four schools. Alternative schools typically take in students who have left regular high schools after violating disciplinary codes or falling behind academically.


EARLIER STORY: These for-profit schools are ‘like a prison' – a ProPublica report 

"There is almost zero public data about these schools," Helen Gym, the councilwoman, said in a recent interview. "These are very vulnerable young people who end up in these programs where a lot of information about them drops off the books."

In addition, Teach For America's Philadelphia branch said it will no longer place teachers in Camelot schools. While the decision to end the partnership after this school year is not related to abuse allegations, "we take allegations of this kind very seriously," the organization said. Tremaine Johnson, a former executive director of Teach For America in Philadelphia, expressed concern in an interview about what he called Camelot's "incarceration type of environment."

Camelot also suffered a setback in Houston, where it manages one school under an $8.6 million contract. On March 9, a day after ProPublica and Slate published the report on Camelot, the Houston school board voted unanimously to end the contract with the company and bring management of its alternative school operations in-house. It's unclear if the decision was related to the article.

And in Columbus, Georgia, the school board Monday night delayed a vote on hiring Camelot to take over alternative education programs in Muscogee County School District. It decided to hold two public forums first so that residents can learn about and respond to the proposal.

After reading the report on Camelot, Muscogee board member Cathy Williams said in an interview, she wanted time to conduct her own research on the company. "Whenever you seek out private service providers for highly specialized services, track record matters a lot," she said. The article "probably did provoke some qualifying questions from myself."

PHILLY COUNCILWOMAN SEEKS MORE TRANSPARENCY

More than a dozen 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, in separate incidents that span 10 years and three states. Two other students, and five Camelot staff members, said they had personally witnessed beatings or physical aggression by staff. The abuse allegedly occurred in Camelot programs in Philadelphia and two other Pennsylvania cities, Reading and Lancaster, as well as in Pensacola, Florida, and New Orleans, Louisiana. For the most part, staffers who allegedly assaulted students have faced no criminal charges or internal discipline; some have even been promoted.

"The idea of ‘slamming' a student is offensive and counter to Camelot's values, culture and procedures. Camelot does not currently practice nor has it ever practiced ‘slamming' kids."– Company statement

In one case, a Pensacola family alleged a month ago that a Camelot staffer knocked a 13-year-old to the ground, causing a bloody abrasion near the student's eye. Both Camelot and the teenager's mother, Pauline Ball, said the Florida Department of Children and Families was investigating the incident, but has yet to issue a report. Camelot said the staff member was trying to break up a fight, and that the injury was an accident.

About half a million people in the United States attend alternative schools, which frequently serve as a last resort for struggling minority and low-income students. They are publicly funded but often managed by private, for-profit companies such as Camelot, which was founded in 2002.

In a Feb. 20 statement, Camelot and its chief executive, Todd Bock, denied any claims of systemic abuse across its programs. Camelot said it provides effective and supportive services to thousands of the country's most challenging and needy students. The company also maintained that it has a long record of academic success, and that it does not place profits over its students' well-being.

"The idea of ‘slamming' a student is offensive and counter to Camelot's values, culture and procedures," the company added in a second statement March 22. "Camelot does not currently practice nor has it ever practiced ‘slamming' kids."

Camelot wished the Houston district well with the new in-house alternative school program, and said that school district officials had praised the company's work. "We enjoyed an excellent relationship with the Houston district and we respect the district's decisions regarding how they choose to operate their programs," Camelot said.

Camelot immediately reports all serious discipline cases in Philadelphia to multiple school district officials, it said. The company also said it complies with a Pennsylvania requirement that alternative programs maintain a "restraint log" detailing any instances in which staff use hands-on strategies to control threatening students.

Gym, who chairs the Philadelphia council's Committee on Children and Youth, said her push for increased transparency partly stems from "anecdotal indicators" that parents and community members have been concerned about inappropriate discipline practices at Camelot for some time.

Gym is seeking more detailed information from the school district about student enrollment, provider contracts, teacher credentials, teacher pay, and academic results, as well as any physical disciplining of students. "The district says it collects it, but it certainly isn't publicly available," she said.

NoneGoogle/StreetView

Excel Academy South in the Crescentville section of the city is operated by Camelot Education.


HITE: ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLS HELD ACCOUNTABLE

Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite said through a spokesman that his district holds its alternative schools accountable and has not experienced the sort of over-aggressive discipline reported elsewhere.

District officials say they compile the same information for alternative schools as for traditional ones, including enrollment, attendance, graduation rates and other outcomes. That data is contained in regular reports to the superintendent and is publicly accessible, according to Christina Grant, the assistant superintendent who oversees all of the alternative schools and programs for the district, including those run by contractors such as Camelot.

That said, the district does not currently release "school progress reports" — which contain detailed information about academics and climate at individual schools — for its alternative programs. Grant said the district is currently working to change that and will begin releasing school progress reports for some alternative schools in June.

Grant said the district routinely monitors its alternative school programs to gauge the quality of academics and operations. "We are aggressively obsessed about student safety," she said. As far as she knows, Camelot has never been cited for inappropriate use of physical restraints in Philadelphia, Grant added.

In 2013, the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center filed a statewide complaint alleging that the Pennsylvania Department of Education fails to adequately monitor alternative schools, which the center says too often have subpar, insufficient academic programs. For example, it contends that the department has neglected its responsibility for ensuring that districts do not disproportionately assign special education students to alternative programs. The complaint is pending.

At the urging of Philadelphia school officials, as well as Camelot, two Teacher Project reporters visited three Camelot-run programs in the city last week, including two high schools and one school where the charter network Mastery has hired Camelot under a separate contract to work with younger students with severe behavioral and emotional issues.

At one high school, staff hand-picked five top-performing students for interviews. As a reward for exemplary behavior, all are designated as "hawks" or "executives" on Camelot's social hierarchy, making them eligible for privileges such as walking the hallways without keeping their hands behind their backs. They praised the school's caring environment and supportive staff.

"We are teenagers, so we're going to do petty stuff, have arguments, but they [staff] always resolve it," said one student, 19-year-old Aries Reyes.

At a March 16 meeting of the School Reform Commission, which oversees the Philadelphia school district, three Camelot students and alumni unexpectedly showed up to testify. They defended the company, noting that the network's programs had made a positive difference in their lives.

Alejandro Bautista, a student at Camelot's Excel Academy South, testified that Camelot staff "actually care" and that the rigid rules helped him improve his behavior and academics. "I knew exactly what needed to be done and how to do it," he said. "I quickly adapted to what was expected, and truly it was nothing more than just being a student."

Jamire Warner, a 22-year-old graduate who attended two Camelot-run programs in Philadelphia in 2011 and 2012, has a different view. He said in an interview that some staff members "will physically slam you to where it is uncomfortable, like a police officer." Warner recalled that one of them "flipped me and held me down" after discovering a lighter in his pocket. "I'm like, ‘You didn't have to do all that,'" he said.

MUSCULAR 'FORMER NFL-TYPE MEN' 

Tremaine Johnson, who served as executive director of Teach For America in Philadelphia in addition to other leadership roles, helped supervise and support Teach For America instructors in Camelot schools and visited them on-site on several occasions. The nonprofit organization places new teachers in underserved communities for two-year assignments.

Johnson said in an interview that he was immediately struck by the muscular "former NFL-type men" who formed the behavioral staff at the programs Camelot runs in Philadelphia. He said staff and administrators at the schools verbally berated students. And he said several Teach For America instructors under his supervision reported staff-on-student physical aggression that "definitely skirted lines," including choke-holds, large men pinning students to the ground with a knee in their back, and "body slamming."

At first, Johnson said, it was easy to discount the teachers' stories since they were all so new to teaching and many had no experience working in such a tough environment. But "I was hearing [the stories] too often, and with too much consistency," he said, adding that he responded by visiting Camelot programs more often. Johnson left Teach For America in 2014.

Teach For America said in a statement that it has only one remaining teacher placed in a Camelot-run school in Philadelphia. It is discontinuing the relationship because of a "lack of alignment with TFA partnership values and goals," a "tough environment" for its teachers and "a difficult, on-and-off partnership with Camelot over the years," spokeswoman Sarah May said.

"Our staff had received some complaints," she added.

Camelot said it hadn't planned to continue the partnership in Philadelphia, either, because it no longer needs Teach For America's help to staff its sites there. "We would not hesitate to re-engage them if the need arose," it said.

Jackie Schrauger, who taught from 2011 to 2013 through Teach For America at a Camelot school in Camden, New Jersey, just outside Philadelphia, said students were often physically restrained there.

She said the written policy — called "handle with care" at many Camelot schools — specified that the staff should follow a specific protocol to de-escalate conflicts and only restrain students as a last resort. But "in practice that perfect confluence never happened," she said. About a dozen times in her experience, according to Schrauger, Camelot's behavioral staff "baited" misbehaving students by calling them derogatory names. When the students reacted, they were manhandled: pushed into a wall or slammed onto a floor, for instance.

Yet, when students' families protested, Camelot staff would "write things so the blame was on the kids — and nothing happened," she said.

Like all teachers, Schrauger was a "mandatory reporter," Camelot spokesman Kirk Dorn said in an email. "That means if she saw a child being mistreated she would have been required to report it to authorities."

PHILLY TEACHER: 'I WAS COMPLICIT'

Chris Smith, who worked as a teacher and academic coordinator at three different Camelot programs in Philadelphia and Camden between 2007 and 2014, said students and staff often felt powerless to complain since school leaders typically condoned the behavior. "It would be like complaining to the warden that conditions aren't good," he said.

Smith said staff rarely defused disruptive situations. Instead, with certain challenging students, the behavioral specialists would immediately resort to physical aggression: In one typical maneuver, he said, a staff member would sweep a teenager's legs out from underneath him, knocking him to the ground and shouting: "You want your ass beat?"

In Smith's view, a lot of the Camelot staff were dedicated and cared about the students but didn't receive adequate training. He tried to improve training but wishes he could have done more, he said. "That's the hardest part is that I was complicit," he said.

If Smith "had concerns about our procedures he did not share them with school leadership," Camelot's Dorn said.

In Houston, leaders of the education advocacy organization ONE Houston had pressed the district for more than a year to reconsider its contract with Camelot. They expressed concerns about a lack of transparency, chaotic classrooms, and insufficient academic rigor. In a recent interview, three of the group's leaders said they were surprised by the unanimity of the board's vote to terminate the contract. They had no idea what Superintendent Richard Carranza would recommend until the board meeting, they said.

In an interview, one Houston school-board member, Jolanda Jones, cited cost as a key factor; the district estimates that it can save $2.5 million annually by operating the alternative school itself. That's partly because the district was paying Camelot for contracted student seats regardless of whether the company filled them, said Mark Smith, the chief officer for student support services at the district.

Carranza did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Camelot's proposed $6.4 million deal from Muscogee County School District in western Georgia may also be in jeopardy. At a school-board meeting March 16, Superintendent David F. Lewis recommended hiring Camelot to run programs for students with severe behavioral and emotional needs, according to the Columbus (Georgia) Ledger-Enquirer.

Camelot's arrival would coincide with the closing of an alternative school in the district. That school, the Edgewood Student Services Center, which is run by the district, faces its own abuse allegations. According to a civil complaint, a 13-year-old student had his leg amputated after allegedly getting body slammed by a behavioral specialist at the school last fall. The boy's mother is seeking $25 million in damages and costs from school district personnel, including Superintendent Lewis.

Lewis was aware of the report in Slate and ProPublica before he recommended Camelot to the school board, according to the Ledger-Enquirer. But Lewis, who did not return multiple phone calls, was quoted in the Ledger-Enquirer as saying that he appreciates Camelot's "face-to-face programming," as opposed to online instruction offered by many alternative school contractors. Lewis also contacted Hite, the Philadelphia superintendent, who assured him that Philadelphia did not have serious concerns about Camelot.

Still, Lewis asked the board on Monday night to delay the vote. It is now expected to be held April 10.

"We are working closely with the Muscogee County School District and welcome the opportunity to meet parents and other community members," said Dorn, the Camelot spokesman.

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