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EUSD ends contract with boys home

EUSD ends contract with boys home

Courage to Change says court ordered boys will have to attend high school instead, but Exeter Unified says those foster youth would attend a separate school

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

EXETER – One of the smallest and most controversial group of students at Exeter Unified School District were at the center of a tug-of-war between the district’s academic reputation and funding for one of its longtime contractors. 

Representatives of Courage to Change, a residential treatment and education facility for court ordered foster youth, spoke at the April 11 meeting of the Exeter Unified School District (EUSD) board of trustees following the school board’s decision on Jan. 10 to end its contract with Courage to Change effective June 30, 2018.

Susan Gambini, founder of the ranch on Anderson Road just outside of Exeter, said CTC administrators and staff were “blindsided” by the board’s vote. She said she and her son, co-founder Brian Gambini, have had a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to educate the violence- and addiction-prone teens at their facility since 1998. Under the contract, CTC gets a large percentage of EUSD’s Average Daily Attendance for its boys who are enrolled in the independent study program in exchange for CTC providing “high quality instruction” with credentialed teachers and maintaining at least $1 million in general liability and $3 million in professional liability insurance.

Gambini contended that if the contract were to end, then CTC would be forced to drop off their students at either Exeter Union High School (EUHS) or Kaweah, the district’s continuation high school, because they reside in the school district, both in definition and under the terms of the MOU.

“The level of violence they are exposed to and commit are way worse than 20 years ago,” Gambini said. “This population is not conducive to an open campus. They do well right where they are.”

Cliff Bush, Exeter’s former police chief and current CTC board member, said releasing these students at the high school or continuation high school would have a detrimental impact on other students, parents, and the community. He said of the 34 boys who have been placed at CTC since Jan. 1, 30 had been convicted of felonies ranging from sexual assault to attempted murder; 32 had a history of drug and alcohol abuse; 21 were affiliated with gangs ranging from Norteno and Sureno to the infamous international gang MS-13; and 10 showed early indications of severe mental health issues including homicidal tendencies.

“Most of these kids are in the system and they are masters of manipulation,” Bush said. “They are on a whole different level of behavior than anything you’ve seen at the high school.”

EUSD President Dean Sutton said that as foster youth living in the district, CTC students are placed at school sites at the discretion of district administration based on a variety of factors. He said if the contract were to end today, CTC boys would be kept at a “self-contained facility” that would not include EUHS or Kaweah High School.

“I can assure everyone here that would not happen,” Sutton said.

In an interview after the meeting, Hire explained that none of CTC’s students would ever attend the high school or continuation high school because they are enrolled under the district’s CDS code, meaning they would either attend Community Day School, for students who have been suspended or expelled, or the Court Community School, for students in special placement through the Tulare County Probation Department. 

Hire said the decision to end the contract was made in January to give CTC ample time to make other arrangements or amend the current agreement which is outdated. Hire said the California Department of Education has cycled through two accountability systems, the Academic Performance Index and the California High School Exit Exam, since the original agreement and is now operating under the California School Dashboard to track student achievement gaps in districts.

“The Dashboard more accurately reflects subgroups and only in grades 3-8 and 11, so the sample size is much smaller than then the API which took in grades 2-12,” Hire said.

For Fall 2017, the first time the State enforced accountability in the new system, the Dashboard showed that EUSD had 9 foster kids whose numbers were not statistically significant to even register a ranking for absenteeism, graduation rate, English language arts or mathematics. The only category foster students were ranked in was suspension rate, and their subgroup received the highest performance designation for having the lowest suspension rate.

But those numbers don’t reflect every student because state testing only looks at juniors. Overall, Hire said 63 students went through CTC’s residential treatment program and were educated in the district in 2016-17. Hire said CTC students greatly affect the district’s College and Career Indicator numbers, shown on the Dashboard as more than 90% of students were not prepared for life after high school in the Class of 2016. If a district has a low-performing subgroup that is not improving year after year, the district could face state intervention in that area, which can mar the district’s reputation in rankings.

Thomas Arriaga from Courage to Change talks about the importance of his experience at the boys camp on Anderson Road just outside of town. Photo by Reggie Ellis.

Thomas Arriaga from Courage to Change talks about the importance of his experience at the boys camp on Anderson Road just outside of town. Photo by Reggie Ellis.

Gambini said the conversation about the MOU began in November when Hire stated that the district was not responsible for educating CTC students because they were no longer considered “foster youth” under the education code. On March 7, Gambini provided EUSD with documents from the California State Department of Education and the Alliance for Children and Families and sections of the Welfare and Institutions codes as well as the Education Codes clarifying the laws regarding CTC students. Under the Education Code, foster youth are defined as both children who are living at home while a dependent of the court as well as children who the court has ordered to be removed into the care, custody and control of a social worker for placement outside the home or has been ordered by a court to be removed from home.

“At one point I didn’t believe they were foster youth or that we were the responsible agency,” Hire said. “After getting more information, we confirmed they are foster youth through the court.”

After drilling Gambini and CTC principal Larry Goates on their accreditation, education standards and testing requirements, the board heard comments from one of CTC’s recent graduates. Thomas Arriaga said he started smoking marijuana at age 13 before moving onto methamphetamine and injecting heroine. After being arrested, he bounced between five group homes including a stop in Bakersfield where they tried to put him at the high school instead of a day program. He said he quickly started drinking and fell in with the wrong crowd. He was then sent to continuation high school, where he just stopped attending. Eventually he landed at CTC which provided him with structure, enrolled him in the California Cadet Corps and encouraged him to get a gym membership.

“Courage to Change is one of the best,” he said. “They keep me on the straight and narrow road.”

Sutton said the board would get back to CTC this week on setting a time to discuss options with the district, not ruling out the possibility of renegotiating the agreement to fall more in line with district priorities.

“I felt your frustration and we will do everything we can to see if we can work something out,” Sutton said.

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