Fla. Students Turn to Maine for Diplomas

By Sean Cavanagh — April 28, 2004 10 min read
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Frustrated in their attempts to pass the state graduation test and receive high school diplomas, some Florida students are securing the prized credentials by a different route: a private school in Lewiston, Maine.

For many of those students, including recent Haitian immigrants in Miami, the primary roadblock to passing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test has been a lack of skill in written English.

Their unorthodox maneuver is drawing attention among parents around the country—particularly those with children in special education—who have sought ways around state exit exams they believe are unfairly denying their children diplomas.

Even as Florida officials decry such steps, several observers predict more people are likely to seek similar loopholes in state graduation-test policies. Florida is one of 20 states that require students to pass a high school exit exam if they want a traditional diploma.

“As states raise their standards, they’re going to face all sorts of ingenious ways of avoiding those standards,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington organization that has studied the graduation tests. “You never know where the holes are in some of these laws until people try it.”

For now, the Miami students are able to secure diplomas by making a modest payment to the Maine school and submitting their high school transcript.

“Many of our students who wished to go to college and get an education were being held back through the exit exam,” said Jean-Rene Foureau, a high school teacher and advocate in Miami’s Haitian community, who is helping the students work with the Maine school. “We decided to look for an alternative.”

$255 Fee

Two years ago, 19-year-old Suze Barthelemy moved from Haiti to join her father in Miami. Her first language is Creole, and though she had studied English off and on since she was 13, she wasn’t fluent upon enrolling at Miami Edison Senior High School.

That weakness showed when Ms. Barthelemy took the FCAT, as the Florida test is known. While the resident of Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood passed the exam’s mathematics section, she failed the reading portion twice. As a result, she left Edison High last year with a certificate of completion, rather than a diploma. Ms. Barthelemy feared that her lack of a diploma would block her path to higher education.

“College is the way to your dreams,” she said this month. “If you can’t go to college, you can’t reach that goal.”

Mr. Foureau, who is the president of the Haitian Refugee Center in her neighborhood, told her about North Atlantic Regional Schools. Not long after sending an academic transcript to the Maine private school and paying a $255 tuition fee, Ms. Barthelemy received a diploma. Florida students who attend private schools, including those within the state, are not required to pass the FCAT to receive a diploma.

Soon afterward, Ms. Barthelemy enrolled at Miami-Dade College, a two-year institution where she studies nursing. She hopes to attend a four-year college someday.

Ms. Barthelemy is not alone in that ambition, or her strategy in pursuing it.

Public high school seniors in Florida must pass the FCAT or the General Educational Development test to earn a diploma, in addition to meeting requirements for course credits and grade point average. Students begin taking the the FCAT graduation test in 10th grade and can retake it as many times as necessary to pass after 12th grade.

Last year, when the FCAT graduation requirement first took effect, state lawmakers also allowed seniors in the 2003 graduating class to receive diplomas if they had achieved a set score on the SAT or ACT college-entrance exam. Legislation is pending that would extend the same option to this year’s seniors.

Like her classmate Ms. Barthelemy, Edison High alumna Stiphania Fourron, 22, passed the math section of the FCAT, but wasn’t able to pass the English portion. The first time she took the test, the native of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince had been in the United States for only a few weeks.

She picked up a North Atlantic Regional diploma last fall; she says she will encourage others to do the same.

“Rich people go to private schools,” she said. “They get their high school diplomas. Why not us?”

That reasoning is shared by Mr. Foureau, who, along with working at the Haitian Refugee Center, teaches social studies at Edison High. Today, the native of Haiti helps students who come to the center prepare for tests such as the FCAT and the SAT and assists them in filling out college financial-aid forms.

Mr. Foureau said he got in touch with North Atlantic Regional Schools last year after seeing several promising students leave Edison High without diplomas. He helped negotiate the reduced price from North Atlantic’s $350 annual tuition for the Miami students. So far, he knows of about 80 students he has been in contact with from Miami who have received diplomas through the Maine school. A North Atlantic official said not all of those students had been referred through Mr. Foureau, or the Haitian center.

Serving Home Schoolers

North Atlantic Regional Schools, which was founded in 1989, serves about 2,000 students, who come from every state, said Steve Moitozo, the school’s administrator and founder. A majority are home-schooled students who are seeking an academic structure for their work and, eventually, a high school diploma, he said.

The school has some 400 students from Florida, about 150 of whom Mr. Moitozo believes have sought out the school because of struggles with the FCAT.

Until recently, the Maine program had provisional accreditation from a group called the National Private Schools Association, which has executive offices in Georgia and Florida. Last week, North Atlantic Regional received full accreditation from the association, the organization confirmed.

Students seeking a diploma from North Atlantic Regional are required to have accumulated 17½ course credits. They do not have to visit the Maine school to graduate. Mr. Moitozo said course transcripts that students submit are evaluated thoroughly.

“This is not a ‘Hello, I need my diploma’ kind of program,” Mr. Moitozo said. “This is work. It’s real work, to get real credits.”

In recent months, Mr. Moitozo said, the school has been contacted by about 20 public high school students from Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, and Texas who told him they were seeking his program because of worries about their states’ exit exams.

Word of the Maine school has spread quickly. An article published on Wrightslaw, a Deltaville, Va.-based organization that provides online advice to parents and advocates who have or work with children with disabilities, describes the Maine program under the headline “Exit Exams Can Be Optional If You Plan Ahead.” In 2003, 1.1 million visitors downloaded files from Wrightslaw’s Web site, the site says.

Not everyone sees North Atlantic Regional’s impact as positive. Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Frances Marine said state officials believe the program offers students a misleading shortcut.

‘Essentially Worthless’

“The concern is, ‘Well, what are students getting for this diploma?’” she said. Giving teenagers that credential without having tested them academically, Ms. Marine added, amounts to “setting them up for failure.”

Ms. Marine noted that Florida law already allows students to gain admission to any of the state’s 28 community colleges without a high school diploma, if they meet minimum high school GPA and credit requirements and take placement tests at those institutions. Students who score poorly on the college placement exams must take remedial classes, she said.

“It’s really unfortunate that schools would take [students’] money and offer them credentials that are essentially worthless,” Ms. Marine said.

Yet the department spokeswoman acknowledged that Florida officials appear to have no way of preventing the Maine private school option.

Maine Commissioner of Education Susan A. Gendron said North Atlantic Regional had the right to operate under state laws governing private schools. Her department was reviewing the approval process for private schools, she added, and could ask Maine legislators next year to enact stricter rules for such institutions.

“Clearly, all of us are wanting a diploma to reflect what a student knows and is able to do,” Ms. Gendron said.

Mr. Moitozo said Florida officials’ concerns with his program were misguided and ultimately hypocritical. He cited provisions of Florida law, some of which he posts on his school’s Web site, granting private schools considerable freedom from state oversight.

“Florida has a clear hands-off approach” to private schools, he said. “How can [Florida officials] make public statements about the internal policy workings of a private school?”

Mr. Jennings, of the Center on Education Policy, called the Miami students’ maneuver around Florida’s exit-test requirement “unfortunate.” He also questioned whether schools such as North Atlantic Regional could interpret much about students’ academic strengths, and deem them diploma-worthy, from looking at transcripts.

Although he predicts state lawmakers around the country will scrutinize similar practices as they arise, he doubts they will crack down any time soon.

“Legislatures are very afraid of regulating private schools,” Mr. Jennings said.

Special Needs

English-language learners are not the only students to have used the private school route to a high school diploma because of difficulty meeting public school mandates. In at least a few instances, students with disabilities have chosen that option, though some families did so in part because they were seeking more specialized educational services for their children.

After repeatedly failing Indiana’s Graduation Qualifying Exam, Heather Knoblauch enrolled in an alternative education program operated by Ombudsman Educational Services, a company that contracts with school districts nationwide to serve students with nontraditional needs.

Ms. Knoblauch left her public school in Woodburn, Ind., and spent a year taking classes in core academic subjects from Ombudsman staff members working at a satellite facility in New Haven, Ind., a 10-minute bus ride from her hometown. She earned an Ombudsman diploma in 2001.

“After [several] years of searching, it was the only option for us,” said Ken Knoblauch, her father. “I can’t think of many stones we didn’t try to turn over.”

All Ombudsman students must take tests evaluating their academic skills and be enrolled at least a semester to be eligible for a diploma, said Jim Bryant, the director of district relations for the company, which is based in Libertyville, Ill. Other than Ms. Knoblauch, Mr. Bryant knew of only one other student who had chosen the program because of difficulties with a state exit exam.

A Private Option

Candace Cortiella, a member of the advisory board for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, a New York City-based advocacy organization, believes few families of students with special needs are seeking out such a private school switch—partly because of costs, but also because many state exit exams are relatively new.

“There are all kinds of reasons why parents of students with disabilities would take [children] out of their public schools,” Ms. Cortiella said, “and this is not at the top of the list.”

One parent, Ann McDonald-Cacho, withdrew her son, Philip, from a public school in Berkeley, Calif., because she worried that he would be denied a diploma because of California’s exit exam. (The state recently delayed the impact of that test until 2006.) Her son, who has cerebral palsy, is now home schooled, though he receives some services through the 9,000-student Berkeley school district. His current academic schedule will not allow him to receive a public high school diploma, Ms. McDonald-Cacho said.

Ms. McDonald-Cacho first learned of the North Atlantic Regional program last year. For now, she’s rejected the idea of seeking out a diploma through that private school.

“There’s something in me that says it’s a crazy thing to do,” Ms. McDonald-Cacho said. But she added: “I’ll never say never.”

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