The $159 Diploma
Online and correspondence high schools offer an inexpensive path to a high school credential for dropouts. But state colleges don't recognize many of the online diplomas.
Stone Coast Academy has no classrooms and uses no textbooks. The school's address is a rented mailbox at a packing and shipping store on Miami Beach. For $159, the school promises students access to its online diploma program, which it says is accepted and recognized by "employers in all 50 states."
To graduate from Stone Coast Academy, students have to complete four online exams and write a 250-word essay on any one of "three easy topics," says Al Martin, who identified himself in email correspondence as a guidance counselor for Stone Coast Academy. Florida Department of State records indicate the school is operated by Jorge Sanchez of Miami Beach and Salvatore Coppolino of Lakewood Ranch, who list themselves as president and vice president, respectively, of Stone Coast Academy Corp.
"The exams are a sampling of grade levels and are not considered difficult," martin wrote in an email responding to a request for information. There are no time limits on the tests, and students may retake the exams as often as they need to pass, Martin says. "The programs can be finished in a few short days, or if you are busy, you can take as much time as you need."
Since 2011, Stone Coast Academy has awarded more than 300 diplomas to Florida residents, according to paperwork filed with the Florida Department of Education.
Another school, St. James Academy in St. Lucie County, offers a $150 self paced, "correspondence" program. St. James also has no school building or classrooms, but does hold a graduation service each May where class rings are available and graduation pictures are taken. The school has awarded 12,000 diplomas since 2002, says director James Mason, who operates the program out of his home in Fort Pierce.
Mason says he set up St. James Academy in 2002 to home-school his stepson, who was "thrown out of school twice." Mason says friends who'd never finished high school then began asking if they could enroll, and today he serves about 1,000 students a year, with most of his enrollment coming by word of mouth.
"I didn't think I'd be in this business that long. I was figuring a year or two would help all my friends get straightened out, but the dropouts keep coming," says Mason.
Including St. James and Stone Coast, more than a dozen private online and correspondence schools operate in Florida, from Miami to Jacksonville to Fort Pierce to Tampa, charging from $150 to $1,650 for high school diploma programs.
Most have no brick-and-mortar locations. Students do course work online or submit it through the mail. Academic requirements vary from school to school, but a number of private online schools allow students to earn a diploma on the basis of a single test or a series of tests. Tests are generally open book and administered online or taken at home through a correspondence option. Some schools, such as the Nationwide Academy in Broward County, grant academic credit for work and life experience.
Many of the online private schools claim to be "nationally accredited," but the accrediting organizations rarely are recognized agencies like the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, a division of Advanced that conducts accreditation evaluations for public elementary, middle and high schools and colleges in Florida, and also for many private schools.
For instance, Stepping Stones High School, an online school that lists its address as a mailbox at a UPS store in Odessa, boasts of accreditation by the National Association for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools and membership in the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools. However, most Florida colleges and vocational schools don't recognize the association as an accrediting body.
Other online schools point to their registration with the Florida Department of Education. First Coast Academy, which operates from Jacksonville, claims in an advertisement on YouTube and the school's Facebook page that it is a "nationally accredited school endorsed by the Department of Education," for example. But while the state Department of Education maintains a list of private schools doing business in the state, it does not regulate, accredit or endorse schools. Neither does the federal Department of Education.
The operators of the online and correspondence schools tap a market of thousands of students who don't graduate from traditional high schools each year but find they need a graduation credential to get employed or find a better job. In 2013, Florida's graduation rate was 75.6%, among the lowest in the nation.
To adults who feel they need a diploma, the online diploma option can appear to be a faster, easier alternative to the GED, which is not offered online and requires students to pass a series of tests in writing, social sciences, science, reading and mathematics that requires approximately eight hours to complete.
Robert Garner, a 21-year-old from Spring Hill who unloads trucks for Wall smart, says he was looking to "better himself" when he signed up with First Coast Academy in 2011. The Jacksonville school charges about $595 per semester for its self-paced "distance-learning program," which includes coursework and tests in reading skills, English, mathematics and other subjects. According to the school's website, more than 1,900 Floridians have earned diplomas from First Coast Academy since the school opened in 1999.
"I was never really good in public school, and I paid good money to do this online school. I went from a 1.5 (GPA) to a 3.5 at First Coast. The classes and curriculum were all really easy. Laid out and simple and everything I thought it would be," says Garner.
Garner says the program took him about six months to complete. He got his diploma from First Coast in 2012, but when he went to apply to Pasco-Hernando State College, Garner found the school wouldn't accept the credential. "I got a letter saying my high school diploma wasn't accepted. I'm not sure what to think of it. I paid good money to do this," says Garner.
Online diploma programs have also proved popular among prison inmates and some Job Corps participants, according to court filings ["Adding to the Demand," page 72].