Diplomas in a day [Editorial]

Our view: Sending Baltimore foster care youths to a Philadelphia diploma mill that shortcuts the requirements for high school graduation won't help them succeed in life

November 25, 2013

The city social services workers who sent dozens of local foster care youth to an unlicensed out-of-state religious school that hands out high school diplomas in exchange for a $500 fee and a single day of tests may have thought they were helping smooth the way to higher education or a job. In fact, they were perpetuating a cruel hoax by giving the youth the impression they met all the qualifications for college or a career when in fact they had not. As a result, the state has failed these unfortunate youngsters twice, first by not giving them the support they needed to earn a legitimate diploma or GED in the public schools, and second by betraying their trust through the award of bogus certificates that will do nothing to help them succeed in life.

It boggles the mind that anyone in a position of authority could condone such a fraud perpetrated against some of the state's most vulnerable young people. Kids who, through no fault of their own, have been bounced around the foster care system for much of their lives understandably have a tougher time staying in school and graduating than those who grow up living with their parents in stable households. Many of them start out behind their peers academically, and the gap grows wider as their school careers progress. No wonder they often attend classes only sporadically or eventually drop out of school altogether. What they need is help getting their lives back on track, not a phony diploma that cheats them out of a chance to genuinely improve their circumstances.

As The Sun's Erica Green reported over the weekend, the Crooked Places Made Straight Christian Academy in Philadelphia, where the Baltimore foster care youths were sent for their diplomas-in-a-day, barely qualifies as an accredited elementary school, let alone high school. The city students took no courses there, completed no homework and participated in none of the school's activities in order to "graduate" with a Pennsylvania high school diploma. All they did was show up with the $500 test fee paid for the city Department of Social Services and spend a few hours filling out answers on an exam that may or may not have measured anything significant regarding the students' mastery of high school material.

Winona Stewart, the school's principal, seemed surprised anyone might question this arrangement. Nor did she seem aware that the minimum amount to time students in Baltimore City must work in order to earn a diploma was at least a year. She seemed genuinely chastened by the remarks of National Association of Private Schools Executive Director Marvin Reynolds, whose organization accredited the Crooked Places academy, criticizing the school as little more than a "diploma mill."

Ms. Stewart clearly was not well-informed on matters that should have been her area of expertise. But that doesn't explain why Baltimore social services officials allowed themselves and the young people for whom they were responsible to be taken in by the scheme. Did they examine the test materials administered by Crooked Places to determine whether they met the state's own minimum standards for a high school equivalency diploma? Did they consult with the state or city school board about choosing an out-of-state institution to grant degrees? Did they ever even bother to read the exams for which they were shelling out taxpayer dollars?

Or were they just hoping to boost the confidence of vulnerable, ill-prepared youths in their ability to make a way in the world despite not having finished high school? Whatever the reason, the department's handling of the matter represented a stupendous lack of judgment for which it ought to be held accountable. Hiring faraway fake academies to issue faux diplomas that aren't worth the paper they're printed on is no substitute for helping these young people succeed in genuine programs offered through the city public schools and the state's GED program right here at home.

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