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Superintendent proposes $6.4M for contractor to run alternative ed programs

The Muscogee County School Board conducts a specially called meeting Thursday evening in the Muscogee County Public Education Center to hear the administration’s proposal to revise alternative education programs.
The Muscogee County School Board conducts a specially called meeting Thursday evening in the Muscogee County Public Education Center to hear the administration’s proposal to revise alternative education programs. mrice@ledger-enquirer.com

A proposed plan designed to improve alternative education in the Muscogee County School District would close the Edgewood Student Services Center and reopen the vacant Marshall Middle School to create a learning center run by a private, for-profit company.

Superintendent David Lewis and his administration chiefs presented the plan to the Muscogee County School Board during a specially called meeting Thursday evening.

MCSD’s proposed one-year contract with Camelot Education of Austin, Texas, would be for $6.4 million and renewable for up to three years. Lewis wants the board to vote on the contract during its next meeting, March 27 at 6 p.m.

The Marshall Learning Center would house:

▪ The AIM program currently at Edgewood, serving students temporarily removed from their assigned school because of severe violations of the district’s behavior code. It would be called the Transitional School at Marshall.

▪ The Woodall Program currently housed at Davis Elementary School and Carver High School, serving students with severe emotional and behavioral problems. It would be called the Therapeutic Day School at Marshall.

▪ A new program called Excel Academy for over-age students who have fallen behind their peers.

▪ Catapult Academy, the dropout recovery program currently at Edgewood, would continue to be run by a separate contractor, not Camelot.

Monday, MCSD and seven other defendants were sued for $25 million in a personal injury complaint resulting from an incident in the AIM program at Edgewood. The lawsuit was filed in Muscogee County State Court on behalf of the Lawanda Thomas, the mother of Montravious Thomas, whose right leg was amputated below the knee after a contracted behavioral specialist with Mentoring & Behavioral Services of Columbus body-slammed the 13-year-old boy multiple times Sept. 12.

The Woodall Center is among the nine out of 24 facilities in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support that the state determined last year to be unfit for those programs. The MCSD board unanimously approved in August the superintendent’s recommendation to transfer the Woodall Program to Davis Elementary School, complying with the state’s order to immediately move those students from the Woodall Center because it was declared unsafe and unhealthy.

Last week, Slate.com posted a story about Camelot Education with a headline that quoted a student as declaring “That place was like a prison.” The subhead says, “Camelot Education takes the students public schools have given up on. But the for-profit company’s approach to discipline has led to allegations of aggression and abuse.” The article was reported by the Teacher Project at Columbia University School of Journalism with support from ProPublica.

The article reported the situation at Paramount Academy, an alternative school for students in grades 6-12 in Reading, Pa., where during a six-month period in 2013 and 2014 “about a half-dozen parents, students and community members … complained about abusive behavior by the school’s staff.”

The article also mentioned allegations of abuse at Camelot-run schools in: Lancaster, Pa.; Philadelphia; New Orleans and Pensacola, Fla.

Slate also reported Camelot’s response to the allegations:

In a 17-page response to written questions, Camelot and its chief executive, Todd Bock, denied any claims of systemic abuse across its programs and said it provides effective and supportive services to thousands of the country’s most challenging and needy students. … The company said the incidents in Pennsylvania, Pensacola, and New Orleans ‘were handled with the utmost diligence and care.’ ”

“… With the exception of an isolated incident in Reading, PA in which we immediately investigated and terminated multiple employees, Camelot has had no founded child abuse cases or lawsuits involving our students over the last decade,” the statement read. “Your narrative is formulated using fewer than 10 incidents from the almost 5,940,000 daily interactions over a period of 10 years.”

After the MCSD board’s work session, the Ledger-Enquirer asked Ray Rodriguez, chief strategy officer at Camelot, about the allegations in the Slate article.

All of the cases Slate cited are “unfounded,” Rodriguez said, except the one in Reading, Pa. “When that came up,” he said, “we addressed it internally, cooperated with all authorities and removed those employees.”

Lewis also has seen the Slate story.

“We did our own search on this and looked at this,” Lewis said.

He said he spoke to the Philadelphia superintendent, one of the districts cited in the article, who disputed the allegations that were reported.

“They had nothing but a good experience with them from their perspective,” Lewis said.

He didn’t call the other superintendents, Lewis said, “because I don’t know them. You don’t always get truthful information, but if you have a relationship with somebody who you see twice a year (serving on the College Board’s superintendent advisory committee), he’s going to be pretty honest with me.”

Lewis also offered this perspective: “You’re talking about alternative education. So you’re going to have circumstances where it may be – and I’m not surprised – kids saying, ‘This is like a prison.’ Well, in some cases, if you’re not accustomed to dealing with certain structure and discipline, that’s one of the reasons we sent people to go visit the school sites on two different occasions (to Chicago).”

Lewis said the administration considered “four or five” other companies to provide this service, “but they didn’t have the face-to-face programming that this provides,” meaning the others rely more on students learning through tutorials on computers. “We’re looking for something with more of a relationship piece.”

Camelot is the only company Lewis said he is aware of that provides “this scope of services.”

The staff who would work at the Marshall Learning Center would be Camelot employees except the school nutrition workers, Lewis said. No current MCSD employees would lose their jobs because of this proposal being implemented, administrators said. In fact, Lewis said, “We can place all of these people and still have vacancies.”

Combined, the AIM and Woodall programs total 53 MCSD employees. They could apply for the Camelot positions or other openings in the district, administrators said.

If the board approves creating the Marshall Learning Center, the administration would try to sell Edgewood, which was appraised at $1.3 million and would more than cover the estimated $780,000 cost of renovating Marshall, Lewis said. He added that he has spoken with a potential buyer, whom he declined to name.

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