Patti Welch was living in Douglasville when she went through a divorce last year. Atlanta was her chance to start over. Weary of her one-hour, 20-minute commute to the northside law office where she works as a paralegal, Welch found a duplex in the West End only 20 minutes from her job.
But the move also was about her 15-year-old son, Patrick. He was a smart kid, a B student entering the 10th grade. But he'd gotten into fights. One took place just off school grounds and involved several kids, so officials labeled it "gang-related." That meant Patrick would be sent to Douglas County's alternative school.
Even though she was confident her son wasn't in a gang, Welch didn't bother to appeal the school district's decision. She thought an alternative school might help him. And she hoped the 10 days Patrick spent in jail after his last fight would serve as a wake-up call.
Welch knew her son would be sent to an alternative school when they moved to Atlanta. But she thought it would be temporary. Instead, officials told her that because Patrick had a gang-related fight on his record, he'd never be allowed to enroll in a regular school in Atlanta.
She tried to make the best of it. When told he'd be sent to Forrest Hill Academy, she looked at her son and forced a smile. "Wow," she said hopefully. "They're putting you in an academy."
Six months later, Patrick became one of eight student plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union's Racial Justice Program in New York City. The suit alleges that Forrest Hill – which is operated by a for-profit company called Community Education Partners – is little more than a pathway to prison for Atlanta's unwanted students.
"It would be a stretch to even call this a school," says Reggie Shuford, an attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program in New York. "There is little to no academic instruction, and its students are treated like criminals. It is nothing more than a warehouse, largely for poor children of color."
The ACLU contends that Forrest Hill students, 97 percent of whom are African-American, spend most of their days filling out worksheets, for which they get no feedback. According to state figures, nine out of 10 students at the school are unable to pass the standardized state test for math proficiency. The figures also show that Forrest Hill is the most violent school in Atlanta.
"It is a national disgrace that the Atlanta school system has handed over its constitutional responsibility to a private, for-profit corporation," says Emily Chiang, the case's lead lawyer.
Forrest Hill wasn't quite the academy that Patti Welch had hoped for.
The idea of putting problem children into an "alternative school" is a recent phenomenon in the world of education.
Before a federal law that took effect in 1978, public schools had no legal requirement to provide education to special needs kids. If a child was violent, or continually disrupted the class, schools could kick him or her out. When the law took away that option, teachers and school systems faced the chore of trying to tame disruptive students. The trend of taking those kids out of regular classrooms and putting them into "alternative" schools began to take hold.
That practice quickly led to allegations that some systems – under increasing pressure to churn out higher scores on standardized tests – were simply "warehousing" their undesirable students, out of sight and out of mind.
"Those schools weren't about education, but just getting through the day," says Eric Freeman, assistant professor of educational policy studies at Georgia State University. "Those were the 'expendable kids.' It's no longer acceptable to have schools where kids are warehoused, but we still have a long way to go."
When it was founded in 1996, Community Education Partners touted itself as a way to get expendable kids back into the mainstream. From the start, however, there were indications CEP's considerable political weight was as responsible for its rise as were its education programs.
CEP was formed in Nashville by four men with heavy Republican connections.CEO Randle Richardson, was chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party from 1992 to 1995 and oversaw a 1994 electoral sweep in which Bill Frist and Fred Thompson won Senate seats and Don Sundquist was elected governor.
Another co-founder, John Danielson, would become chief of staff for Education Secretary Rod Paige under George W. Bush. One of the initial investors, Tom Beasley, had chaired the Tennessee GOP before Richardson did.
Beasley also founded the Corrections Corporation of America, which runs privatized prisons. Founded in 1984, CCA has grown to become the sixth-largest prison system in the country – trailing only the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and four states. But the company also has faced criticism for understaffing, high turnover and lax security. According to a 1999 state audit, neglect of medical care and security at CCA facilities in Georgia amounted to "borderline deliberate indifference."