Maine School Provides FCAT Loophole
Susan Notes: If all that is holding students back from pursuing college, technical training, or employment, then I say, "Get them that piece of paper!"
Dozens of county students are transferring their high school credits to an out-of-state private school, using a loophole that lets them earn a diploma without passing the state's graduation test.
Two years after arriving from Port-au-Prince, Edison High student Stephania Fourron had learned enough English to pass the math portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, but failed the reading exam three times.
She could not receive a diploma, could not start college, could not study nursing -- until a community activist offered her a novel solution from 1,600 miles away.
For a $255 fee, a private school designed for home-schooled students in Lewiston, Maine, offered to accept her course credits from Edison and issue a diploma -- even though she has never attended classes there. Within weeks, Fourron was able to begin classes at Miami Dade College.
For her and at least 76 other Miami students, North Atlantic Regional High School has been a loophole to a controversial state law that denied diplomas last year to 12,500 students statewide, including 5,000 in Miami-Dade, who failed the FCAT.
The loophole is drawing ire from the state's education chief -- who acknowledges he is probably powerless to close it -- and word could spread quickly in the high-poverty areas where FCAT failure is epidemic, such as Fourron's Little Haiti neighborhood.
''I told everybody, everyone,'' Fourron said. 'They say, `I can't pass the FCAT,' and I say don't worry about that.''
Some of her friends such as Suze Barthelemy are also using their North Atlantic Regional diplomas at Miami Dade College.
''Once you don't have a high school diploma, you can't go to college; you can't reach your dreams,'' said Barthelemy, 19. ``All you can do is work, work, work.''
LIKE STANDARD DIPLOMA
At Miami Dade College, a diploma from North Atlantic Regional is treated the same as a Florida diploma, said registrar Steve Kelly.
He said North Atlantic Regional's accreditation from the National Private Schools Association likely landed it on the list of approved schools.
''It's listed as a legitimate high school,'' he said. ``There would be no questions asked at admissions.''
But a spokesman for the Maine Department of Education said the high school may be misleading students when it claims on its Internet site to ''have the authority and privilege to grant high school diplomas in the State of Maine'' and provide ``a real high school diploma -- NOT a GED, NOT a certificate of completion.''
''The state of Maine does not recognize their grades, credits, transcripts or diplomas,'' said spokesman Edwin ''Buzz'' Kastuck. ``If you're home-schooling your children, you can issue them a diploma from your kitchen table -- we look at it the same way.''
A decades-old court ruling forced Maine to acknowledge religious and independent schools that would not follow state-approved curricula or meet other standards, Kastuck said. The state maintains a list of those schools' students solely to ensure they are not classified as truants.
''It is clearly in no way equivalent to a public school diploma from the state of Maine,'' he said.
The school's husband-and-wife administrators, Steve and Carol Moitozo, said the state education department is trying to discredit a legitimate program because public-school funding drops when students attend private or home schools.
North Atlantic Regional High, Steve Moitozo said, screens students' accomplishments -- course work, standardized test scores, internship experiences and other parts of an educational portfolio -- and converts them into measurable credits. When a student has met Maine's graduation requirements -- a set number of classes in subjects such as math and English -- they receive a diploma.
Maine has no exit exam like the FCAT.
''The students in Florida earned those credits,'' Moitozo said. ``They can take them and cash them in anywhere they like.''
The North Atlantic Regional diplomas are recognized at state universities such as Florida International, but do not carry the same weight as a standard diploma, said Carmen Brown, FIU's admissions director.
Because the high school is not accredited by a state government or a specific confederation of private-school umbrella groups, Brown said students from the Maine school would need to have significantly higher grades and test scores.
Each university and college sets its own standards, but Brown said the others probably have similar expectations to those FIU sets for students from schools like North Atlantic Regional -- roughly a 3.5 grade point average and 1200 SAT score, as opposed to the 3.0 GPA and 1060 score expected for others.
''Clearly the students that are not passing the FCAT are not likely to score 1200 or even 1000 on the SAT,'' said Education Commissioner Jim Horne.
North Atlantic Regional has about 400 students in Maine, Moitozo said, most of whom attend occasional classes taught by certified teachers and designed to prepare parents to handle everything from Macbeth to mitosis.
''Our job as a high school is not to teach children; our job as a high school is to teach parents to teach their children,'' he said. ``All we need to do is set the sails and show them how to navigate, because when the parents get that, they soar.''
OUT OF STATE
But most of the schools' students never come to Lewiston.
More than 80 percent of North Atlantic's students live outside Maine, Moitozo said. The largest concentration is a group of 400 in Florida, enough to prompt the school to open an administrative office in Palm Bay and host an annual graduation ceremony in Orlando.
''We encourage them to try [the FCAT], but as a last resort they can use this route,'' said Jean-Rene Foureau, director of the Haitian Refugee Center and a teacher at Edison who helped connect the students with the Moitozos' school.
He said he had a lawyer review the arrangement and the school's accreditation papers from the National Private Schools Association.
He also negotiated the price down from the school's typical $360 fee.
''Somebody's trying to turn a buck on families who probably don't know any better,'' Horne said. ``It just smells fishy.''
A spokeswoman for Gov. Jeb Bush, whose A+ Education plan included the FCAT graduation requirement, said the state provides ample opportunities for students to earn diplomas, even after the senior year.
''We have alternatives that can assist students that have language barriers -- immersion classes, special reading classes,'' said press secretary Alia Faraj.
Despite Bush's and Horne's opposition, the practice is likely to grow, at least for now, as Foureau and his first group of graduates spread the word.
''This isn't anything we're going to take out advertising to tell people about,'' Moitozo said, ``although that might be a good idea.''
Horne said Miami Dade College and other community colleges should carefully consider which diplomas they accept.
''To simply waive the rules through a back-door channel is not serving the students well,'' Horne said.
``It's going to create a false sense of accomplishment.''
Matthew I Pinzur
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