U.S. Justice Department probing Pa. Education Department

02.24.14 | Bob Price

The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a civil-rights investigation into the Pennsylvania Department of Education's program for disruptive students, the Daily News has learned.

The probe was prompted by a complaint last August from the Center City nonprofit Education Law Center alleging that the statewide Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth (AEDY) program had a disproportionate number of African-American students and students with disabilities.

Deborah Gordon Klehr, a senior staff attorney with the law center, said that as a result of state policies, "school districts across Pennsylvania are discriminating . . . through the misuse of the AEDY program."

A Justice Department spokeswoman confirmed in an email yesterday that the department "received the complaint and the Civil Rights Division has an open investigation into the statewide system of alternative schools."

The state is cooperating with the investigation, Education Department spokesman Tim Eller said in an email.

The department reported that in 2010-11, the Philadelphia School District had 2,013 students enrolled in the program, of whom 28 percent had disabilities and 81 percent were African-American. But in the total district population, 13 percent of the students had disabilities and 58 percent of students were African-American.

The district says that 410 students are enrolled in two AEDY programs: Camelot Academy at Boone, 26th and Jefferson streets, North Philadelphia; and Phase 4 Learning Center, at the Franklin Mills Mall.

In addition, the district operates two disciplinary schools, Philadelphia Learning Academy North and South, which are for expelled students and are not approved for AEDY, according to the complaint. District officials have nonetheless sent nonexpelled students to these schools, which function "in the same way as an AEDY program," the complaint said.

A district spokesman did not return calls for comment last night.

Students with disabilities and African-American students are being placed in a program that Klehr calls "an academically inferior, stigmatizing program."

AEDY offers less instruction per year - 810 hours, compared with regular public education, which must offer 990 hours, Klehr said.

Extracurricular activities or athletics are not required in AEDY programs, which are offered to middle- and high-school students. Certain programs, such as the two in Philadelphia, do not have to hire highly qualified teachers.

"In general, kids aren't getting the education they would have in regular public school," Klehr said.

Some parents claim that their children fill out worksheets all day in the program, she said. Others claim that instruction is purely computer-based. One said that her child watched the movie "Hot Tub Time Machine" in class.

Word of the investigation was good news to local education advocates.

"It's very significant that the Department of Justice is investigating complaints and concerns that come out of the disciplinary program," said Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Education. "It's a big deal."

Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, said that "what we need is a department that takes a student-centered approach and when [that] student-centered approach results in poor service, then the [Justice Department] should absolutely investigate whether civil rights are being violated."