Cara Volpe is a member of the 2003 Houston corps.
Cliché as it can seem, there are always a few particular students whose stories you think about and refer to again and again. Often they are the shining successes, the kids and teachers who inspire us and prove what’s possible. But some stories don’t have as happy an ending. . .and there are many whose endings we don’t even know.
When I met Jose, I was a first-year teacher at Jane Long Middle School in Houston, Texas. It was 2003, and on the days I wore a Long MS t-shirt I was often mistaken for a student. I was an idealist, an idealist who didn’t even need coffee to make it through the day at that point in her life. Jose was simultaneously a shining star and what felt like a thorn in my side. In my class, and every other class, he was a case study in disruptiveness, creating constant interruptions, talking back to me and other classmates, and generally diverting attention away from learning.
He reminded me a lot of myself, the kind of kid who acted up in part because they were bored in class. He was so smart. Smart enough to know exactly which buttons to push to send both kids and teachers over the edge. I worked hard to invest Jose in his own very bright future. A few months into the school year, I took Jose (and Diana, Cindy, and Isaias) on a special field trip to the Houston Science Museum. Despite getting totally lost and driving in circles, it was amazing, and the beginning of a breakthrough.
A few weeks after our trip, seemingly out of nowhere, Jose was in a terrible mood. Nine years later my heart still drops when I think about what he said, in a totally dejected voice: “Ms. Anderson told me that you said I didn’t deserve the field trip, that I wasn’t being good.” I was livid. It wasn’t even true, but even if it was: how could a responsible adult have said that to a child?
That’s all it took for our delicate, precarious, carefully crafted bubble to burst. I tried and tried, and cried and cried, and journaled and journaled. I knew that each of my students was capable of great things if we, as adults, took responsibility for providing them with the resources they needed and deserved. But at the time, I had very little idea of how to support students like Jose with severe behavioral issues. I felt flat-out desperate, and also very alone.
So I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that when I learned he going to CEP—“the destination for the Houston school district’s most disruptive students”—I was devastated but also guiltily relieved.
I knew that CEP was the alternative, temporary “schooling” solution for sixth-to-12th grade students in Houston who had incurred major disciplinary infractions, but I only recently learned what CEP stood for: Community Education Partners. Sounds positive and productive, right? By and large it wasn’t.
In my personal experience and having spoken with many other Houston teachers, when a child returned from CEP, there might have been a brief honeymoon period, but in the long-term students who attended CEP had often regressed. Some of CEP’s facilities were constructed by a private prison contractor (who provided the “best interest rates available at the time”). One student said, in essence, “I’d rather drop out of school than go back to CEP.”
For this, CEP—also a private company—was paid “almost $12 million a year in taxpayer money.”
Recently, CEP has met its end, citing financial reasons. Houston Independent School District now has a contract with another private company, Camelot Schools, which will be “implementing a new approach in Houston.” All I can say is that I will be keeping tabs.
I’ve tried to keep tabs on Jose, but I have no idea where he is. I honestly am not even sure if he came back to Jane Long MS after sixth grade. I looked for him on MySpace years ago. I still look for him on Facebook. I think about him, and I am flooded with the emotions I felt as a 22-year-old, as well as the emotions I feel with much more experience under my belt.
If I fully understood what awaited students at a place like CEP, would I have felt differently when Jose was sent there? Would I have done anything more to help prevent him from being sent to CEP? What were the other options?
As a nation, we’re seeing more examples of different approaches for supporting students with significant challenges, ranging from more proactive interventions at the elementary level to alternative high schools specifically focused on working with over-aged, under-credited students, many of whom are all too familiar with the juvenile-justice system.
But there are not nearly enough alternate approaches, not nearly enough early interventions.
There are so many Joses in this country, the kids that many adults have simply given up on. They are sent to a place like CEP, and then what? In the moment, when you are a teacher or principal trying to also balance the needs of your many other students, a CEP can feel like your only answer. But as I look back and remember Jose (and Andy, Noemi, Lisette, Walter, and others), I know there have to be better answers.
Thinking she’d eventually go to medical school, Cara graduated from the University of Virginia and moved to Houston to join Teach For America; a decade later, she’s still working in education. She currently manages an initiative to encourage collaboration between public schools (both district and charter) and will never stop seeing the world through the eyes of a teacher and learner. You can find her on Twitter @caravolpe