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The $159 Diploma

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 students

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].

Colleges and employers

Garner's experience is, increasingly common, as state colleges and community colleges review students' credentials more critically.

Until a few years ago, state community colleges accepted students regardless whether they had valid high school diplomas. Placement tests determined whether students needed to take remedial classes before doing college level work. In 2011, however, the U.S. Department of Education passed rules requiring colleges and universities to validate high school diplomas.

College admissions officials in Florida say they've devised their own methods of determining whether a school provides a legitimate high school education. They look at factors ranging from whether there's a brick-and-mortar location to the presence of a school calendar to curriculum materials to the number of teachers to accreditation by a recognized agency.

The schools say they automatically reject diplomas awarded based on a single test aside from the GED. And while each state college maintains its own list of unacceptable high schools, Susan Fell, director of admissions and records for St. Petersburg College, says the schools share that information and "pretty much anyone that we turn away, everyone will turn away."

Mason, the operator of St. James Academy, acknowledges that graduates of his school are no longer accepted at Indian River State College and other state colleges and universities unless they take the GED — but says his grads still get into some private schools.

"They can go on to, like, cosmetology school, or there's a bunch of nursing schools around here that are private that they can go to, and up in the Daytona area where we have a lot of students, we send them to Bethune-Cookman," says Mason, who left a public school teaching job in St. Lucie County after the Florida Education Practices Commission reprimanded him and put him on probation in 2000 after allegations that included inappropriately rubbing male students' backs, visiting a student's home and buying him gifts and asking about male students' sexual orientations. He did not admit, deny or contest the allegations.

Mason says he urges students who want to go to state colleges and universities to get their GED instead. Beverly James, a spokeswoman for Bethune- Cookman, confirmed that the school has 10 students who graduated from St. James Academy.

Some employers also have grown leery of diplomas issued by online private high schools. On its job application form, for instance, the city of Lauderhill specifically states that it will not accept high school diplomas from the American Academy, Continental Academy, Sunrise Private High School, St. James Academy or any other school that is "not accredited," though it does not name which accrediting body or bodies it considers acceptable. All those schools offer online or correspondence diploma programs.

Oversight

Last May, following an investigation by the Florida Attorney General's office, the operators of an online high school diploma program based in Miramar agreed to refund consumers more than $9,000 and change the way they advertise their diploma programs on the internet.

Under the voluntary compliance agreement, Continental Academy and Southeastern High School — which offer a $250 "high school proficiency diploma" — can no longer advertise that they are "fully accredited."

The businesses — the object of dozens of consumer complaints — also agreed to stop advertising that their diploma or degree programs are appropriate for college-bound students or employment. The schools also agreed to place a disclaimer on their websites stating that their program is not a high school equivalency and "may not be accepted as evidence of a high school education or diploma by all colleges and employers."

The schools' operators — who also paid $50,000 to the Attorney General's office to reimburse the state for the costs of the investigation — are required to issue quarterly reports with the names and contact information of all consumers who request refunds, along with the dates of such requests and the date and amount of refunds paid.

The state's action against Continental and Southeastern is a rare intrusion into the largely unregulated world of private schools, however.

The state requires all private schools to register each year with the Department of Education. Each school also must complete an annual survey with information on the number of teachers, enrolled students and graduates.

But that's the extent of the state DOE's requirements. The agency doesn't verify any of the information the schools submit. Nor does it inspect the schools or evaluate their curriculums.

In fact, the DOE states specifically on its website that being listed in the directory of private schools "should not be used by any private school to imply approval or accreditation by the state."

Continental Academy — which was accredited by SACS from 2006 through 2008 but withdrew its accreditation in 2009 after questions were raised about the school's "Fast Track Program" — continues to appear on the state Department of Education's online directory of private schools, alongside respected private schools like Bolles School in Jacksonville and Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg that are accredited by SACS.

The state's laissez-faire approach frustrates admissions officers at state schools. "If I wanted to open up a high school, it's so easy. All I would have to do is say, Susan's High School and establish a website and advertise ‘$200, Get Your High School Diploma Here,' " says Fell of St. Petersburg College.

"I could make up an accrediting body, like the Accrediting Association of Schools Named Susan. I could even register that accrediting body and make it an official entity, so when a naive student went to that website, it would all appear to be legitimate," she says.

Kathy Bucklew, registrar at Polk State College, believes the state DOE needs statutory authority to take a more proactive role in legitimizing private schools.

"We do think there should be some standards the Department of Education places on what they consider a true high school," says Bucklew.

The DOE, she says, could use the same sort of standards that the state colleges individually use to assess schools, such as teacher qualifications, interaction between students and teachers and the teaching materials a school uses, she says. "These are pretty simple things."

Adding to the Demand

Job seekers and college hopefuls aren't the only consumers seeking diplomas online. Programs like the one offered by Continental Academy in Miramar have also attracted inmates in states like Indiana, where prisoners can shave time off their sentences by earning a diploma.

In at least a half-dozen instances, however, court records indicate the Indiana Department of Corrections refused to recognize diplomas that inmates earned from Continental Academy. According to the court filings in lawsuits fi led by inmates, including a murderer and a drug dealer, the Indiana Department of Corrections determined that Continental's program was "not accredited or recognized by the Florida Department of Education" and "did not meet the criteria of a high school diploma set by the Indiana Department of Education."

Meanwhile, Job Corps centers in Gainesville, Homestead and several other locations in the southeastern U. S. have also relied on schools like Continental and First Coast Academy in Jacksonville to provide high school completion programs for their students.

According to a 2005 lawsuit filed by Amy Stevens, a former Department of Labor employee who oversaw federal training contracts for privately contracted residential youth programs in those locations, "Job Corps students who were high school dropouts were receiving high school diplomas in just under eight weeks with often less than a sixth-grade education prior to entering Job Corps" and a "large percentage of high school diploma were being issued to students with reading scores as low as the third grade level."

According to the complaint, the "speedy issuances of non accredited high schools diplomas" helped those Job Corps Centers to rise in their rankings, making the federal contractors who ran the program eligible for "significant performance and incentive bonuses."

A spokesman for the Homestead Job Corp Center says the center now uses Philadelphia-based Penn Foster High School — which is accredited by the Commission on Secondary Schools of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools — for its online program.