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Diplomas from Maine Help Skirt FCAT

Susan Notes: The good news is that Jessica has a diploma. This open letter addresses the article below.

An open letter to the Florida State Board of Education:

On Saturday March 12, 2005 the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s front page alerted its readers that some students are skirting the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) requirement for high school graduation. Outrageous as it sounds, many of these young people have gone on to college, served in the U.S. military or taken productive jobs after receiving diplomas from the North Atlantic Regional High School in Maine.

This high school is clearly trying to thwart Gov. Jeb Bush’s efforts to root out the “failing” children in our state before they can slip into the military or our colleges or the civilian workforce. Florida’s private schools already offer refuge from the FCAT for any child whose parents can afford the tuition. Imagine the havoc that might result from giving poor and working class children the same exemption from this flawless educational assessment tool the wealthy kids now enjoy. Imagine the danger in allowing some 18-year-old who can’t pass the FCAT to continue dreaming of a successful and productive future.

This FCAT “loophole” must be closed! It is a sign that the soft bigotry of low expectations is creeping into our plantations, I mean schools. Toughen the FCAT still more and raise the stakes even higher. Maybe forced labor camps for those young people who can’t pass the test.

Paul A. Moore

Diplomas from Maine Help Skirt FCAT

Jessica Smock is a FCAT refugee.

Unable to pass the exam as a senior and barred from graduation in Florida, the Greenacres girl received a diploma anyway from a school in Maine she never attended, never even saw.

Like a reported 200 other Florida students dodging the FCAT, Jessica transferred her public school credits to North Atlantic Regional School in Lewiston, Maine, where there is no FCAT-like exam that students must overcome to graduate and fewer credits are required to graduate.

Jessica, who passed her courses at John I. Leonard High but repeatedly failed the math part of the test, was able to enter Palm Beach Community College with a sheepskin that North Atlantic sold her for $450.

"I did not want to pay for her diploma, trust me," said her mother Gail Smock. "But if I hadn't, she would not be where she is," studying to be an elementary school teacher or physical therapist -- at least after she finishes remedial classes. "It was worth every penny."

She could not receive a Florida diploma until she passed the FCAT, even if she had to come back every year to take it. Her mother didn't want her to be a high school dropout.

"She's a B-C student. You can't judge someone on one test," said her mother, who heard about North Atlantic from a friend. Jessica, who has a 3.4 grade point average in college, "just gets nervous and doesn't do well on tests."

Florida and Maine state education officials are annoyed at the backdoor approach, but they don't have the authority to challenge using the diploma to enter college.

North Atlantic's Web site lists well over 100 schools that enrolled their graduates including the University of North Florida, University of Central Florida, Miami-Dade Community College and, it claims, Harvard.

Florida officials say individual colleges set their own entrance requirements and North Atlantic founder Steve Moitozo warns than no high school's diploma is a ticket to college admissions; that depends on the student's achievements.

Under Maine law, a high school senior only needs 171/2 credits to graduate; Florida requires 24 credits for a student attending four years of high school.

The 15-year-old school reports that it has a campus serving about 400 children in the warehouse district of Lewiston. Despite the relatively few students on campus, the school says it graduates an additional 1,800 students each year who hail from across the country, notably the Miami and Orlando areas, as well as Israel and Germany, Moitozo said.

That program, which the school's Web site openly calls a "loophole," runs directly counter to Florida's A-Plus education reforms and the national No Child Left Behind Act.

"In Florida, we expect a high school diploma to mean something," state Education Commissioner John Winn said. "The fact that a high school diploma can be obtained without demonstration of proficiency and knowledge of basic skills is a disservice to our students and their future."

A-Plus requires students pass the reading and math sections of the 10th grade FCAT to graduate. Jessica could never pass math, missing it by a handful of points each year, her mother said.

Moitozo makes no apologies. He says that half the states don't have graduation exams. He contends that angry officials in both states just resent losing money to private schools. But most of all, he said students should not be penalized for public school shortcomings.

"If a student comes to me with passing grades in four years of English and can't pass the [FCAT] English exit exam, then somebody has been lying to them all along. It's not their fault."

North Atlantic touts itself as a "nationally accredited" institution "recognized by the state of Maine." Which is true up to a point. Maine's education department "recognizes" the school has met minimal standards, but it has not met the more stringent standards to qualify as a "state-approved" private school, said Edwin "Buzz" Kastuck, director of school approval services.

"The state does not recognize their grades, their credits, their diplomas, their transcripts," he said. But some colleges in the Pine Tree State such as the University of Maine have enrolled their graduates.

The National Private School Association has accredited North Atlantic. Barry University in Miami Shores, cited on North Atlantic's Web site, accepted two of its students last fall. But once Barry discovered that the New England Association of Colleges and Universities had not accredited the school, the students were asked to leave, said Helen Corpuz, director of undergraduate admissions.

North Atlantic maintains a small office in Palm Bay south of Melbourne where staff tutor local children and meet with parents. The school promotes itself on the Internet, in speeches Moitozo gives to home-schooling conventions in Florida and by word of mouth.

Commissioner Winn hopes few will bite at the lure of easier graduation.

"As the word gets out about these [schools], colleges and universities will realize the lack of value these diplomas hold. Parents are endangering the future of their children and risking their potential for academic success."


— Bill Hirschman and Paul A. Moore
Sun-Sentinel and open letter


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