The journey to a high school diploma for most Maryland students spans four years, 720 days of classes, and a slate of state tests. But for dozens of Baltimore youths, the journey has involved a two-hour trip up Interstate 95, a three-hour exam and a $500 check.
Over the past year and a half, the Baltimore City Department of Social Services paid $40,000 of taxpayer money to send youths in foster care to a private Christian school in Philadelphia where they have obtained a high school diploma in one day.
Social Services officials defend the program, despite its unusual method of providing diplomas. They say the overwhelming majority of the 80 youths who have traveled to Crooked Places Made Straight Christian Academy have been successful at the small K-12 school.
The youths, most age 18 and older, went to the academy in the morning, took a series of exams, and if they passed, returned to Baltimore that afternoon with a Pennsylvania diploma.
Molly McGrath Tierney, director of the city social services agency, said those diplomas are like "keys to the kingdom" for youths whose life circumstances have prevented them from having a traditional school career.
"I'm not an expert in what everyone has to do to get a high school diploma, but what I do know is … these diplomas opened doors where they would have otherwise been slammed shut," she said.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke questions why Baltimore's public school system — which has several alternative programs that help students as old as 21 meet graduation requirements — could not meet the needs of the youths in foster care.
"There's no reason that the school system and DSS couldn't have made these diplomas accessible in an accelerated way through a partnership with GED," said Clarke, who chairs the council's Education Committee and has advocated for improved access to alternative and adult education programs.
She added that with the money spent on the diplomas from the Philadelphia school, "we could pay for a lot of GED tests for our students, or we could jump-start the education required for them to get those diplomas."
Others questioned whether this was the best use of taxpayer funds and said such a decision should have been publicly vetted.
"For an investment of this nature, you really do need a holistic analysis of whether this is the best way to handle these students," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.
"We don't want to just fail our kids, and leave them behind … but with government funds, especially sent to religious institutions, this needs to be holistically decided."
The Crooked Places Made Straight option is similar to the General Educational Development (GED) certificate, a nationally recognized program that offers a series of tests in lieu of state-required course work in order to obtain a high school diploma, or the equivalency.
The GED is a regulated program that can only be administered at approved sites, and test-takers generally pay an out-of-pocket fee that ranges from $45 to $150, depending on whether the test is done on paper or on a computer.
Winona Stewart, principal of Crooked Places Made Straight, said she has run the program for 15 years.
In a telephone interview Monday, she staunchly defended the program, which has served young adults from Baltimore and other states she did not specify, though she acknowledged that its legitimacy has been challenged.
"I don't get why people are questioning me when people get GEDs all day long," she said. "Most kids don't graduate on a 12th-grade level, no way."
She added that "a lot of kids who left from here, they're going to college, the Marines. At least they can move to the next level, and they can do something positive with their life."
But after inquiries from The Baltimore Sun to the school's accrediting body, the National Association of Private Schools, Stewart said Friday that she was shutting the one-day testing program down.
"My boss explained some things that I was doing wrong that I just didn't know that I was doing wrong," Stewart said. Of note, she learned that Baltimore students would have to do at least a year's worth of work to earn the diploma she was awarding.