Providers of Special Education, Dropout Prevention Services Merge

By Christina A. Samuels — July 28, 2015 4 min read
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Catapult Learning, a provider of Title I and dropout prevention services, and Specialized Educational Services Inc., which operates alternative schools, have merged to form a company that will serve 300,000 students through a combination of direct instruction and proprietary technology programs.

The merged company will retain the Catapult Learning, Inc., name and be based in Camden, N.J. It has 5,500 employees, including teachers, counselors, and support service professionals, and operates 80 schools. The merger was finalized July 21.

Catapult was founded in 1976 and contracts with private and public schools to provide reading and math interventions to struggling learners. Catapult also offers professional development and school improvement programs, and in recent years launched a dropout prevention program called Catapult Academy. The academy uses a “flipped” instructional model, where about 70 percent of instruction is provided online, and 30 percent is given through face-to-face, small-group instruction.

Specialized Education Services, Inc., known as SESI, was headquartered in Yardley, Pa. SESI operates day schools and special programs for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, learning disabilities, or autism.

About 125,000 students will be served directly by the two providers, while another 175,000 will be using materials such as AchieveReading and AchieveMath, two Catapult-developed programs that are designed to fit into a response-to-intervention framework.

School Districts Outsourcing Special Programs

The companies are providing services that many districts are finding it easier to contract for, rather than build themselves.

They offered two examples: Lincoln, Neb., schools hired SESI on a three-year contract to create an alternative program for students with severe behavioral needs, paying $290,000 for its first year, which just ended.

The program has been successful so far in helping a group of students who have very challenging problems, said Steve Joel, the superintendent of the 40,000-student district.

“How do you take kids who historically failed, whose parents were giving up on them because their behavior was so poor—how do you construct an education experience that allows them not only to find academic success but that teaches them to become better people?” Joel said.

The new K-8 program uses SESI’s Success Schools model of strict behavioral standards and rewards for positive behaviors, among other techniques. The district is now looking into expanding the program to serve high school students, Joel said. It would have been very hard to create such a program in-house, he said.

“Partnerships are fantastic if you can find the partner that has specific expertise in the problem you’re trying to solve,” he said. “We were able to bring in a model that was ready to go.”

Alberto Vázquez Matos, who became chief of staff of Hillsborough, Fla., schools in June, has experience with Catapult Learning through his five years as the superintendent of the Diocese of St. Petersburg schools. The diocese operates Catholic schools in five central Florida counties, and Catapult Learning provided Title I services to its students through contracts with local school districts, Vázquez said. Catapult Learning also offered teacher professional development in the common core.

“If you’re a district that doesn’t have the financial resources to create an office where you have people actually constantly researching best practices and providing training to teachers on an ongoing basis, and you can partner with a company that has that ability and can offer it to you at a reasonable cost, it’s a great opportunity,” Vázquez said.

Catapult, SESI Say Merger Will Combine Strengths

Stuart Udell, the chief executive office for Catapult Learning, and Michael Kaufman, the former CEO of SESI whose title will be president in the new company, said in an interview that the merger will allow them to blend some of their skills for students whose needs often overlap.

For example, Kaufman said, the schools that SESI operates can now take advantage of some of the academic material that Catapult produces. Udell said that the Catapult Academy programs can incorporate some of the best practices currently in use in SESI schools.

Schools and districts should see little change, however, Udell said. “I think it’s business as usual for the most part. What is different is the access to more programs, more resources, and more services,” he said.

Photo: Rayianna Peak, left, and Dashawn Wilson, center, both 19-year-old former students at High Road Upper School, practice on Rayianna’s brother, Michael, at Bennett Career Institute, a beauty and barbering school near the school’s campus in Washington, in 2013. High Road School is operated by Specialized Education Services Inc., which merged this month with Catapult Learning.—Ken Cedeno for Education Week-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.