DiJohn Thomas, 20, who is in city foster care and obtained his diploma from the school in June, said he left Philadelphia with a chance of making it in Baltimore.

"My life was already planned for me before I was able to take this step," he said. "Now I'm only the second person in my family to get a high school diploma. Usually, it's you go to school, or you get a GED. You get neither, and you're just a statistic. … I didn't want that. I am proud of myself for doing this."

Thomas bounced around group homes for most of his school years and eventually stopped going to school. The work was too easy at his city school, he said, and the classes too big.

It would have taken him another two to three years to get a high school diploma, Thomas said, and he didn't want to attend school with younger students. He didn't want to get a GED, he said, because he felt it was a stereotype associated with poor blacks.

When he learned about Crooked Places Made Straight, he was "shocked" that such a program existed.

Now Thomas — who said he passed the exams at the Philadelphia school with flying colors — is studying music theory and theater at the Community College of Baltimore County. He's also taking prerequisites to transfer to Morgan State University, where he hopes to minor in business and management.

"Yeah, it may be considered a cheap way out, but it's for people who need that push … and sometimes people don't get that in the school system," he said. "School is not for everybody. But if you have a program that can make school work for some people, that's a step up. And you get more people off the street and in the workplace that way."

The Philadelphia school's model deviates significantly from alternative programs in Baltimore that are designed to help students as old as 21 complete high school.

In the Baltimore programs, which help students satisfy minimum graduation requirements, students still have to meet all Maryland requirements, including passing the High School Assessments and taking four math and English credits as well as gym, health and technology education.

The Maryland State Department of Education does not specify how many hours of a subject equate to a single-year credit, but it requires students to go to school 180 days a year.

Clarke noted that the news about the Philadelphia diploma program came to light amid recommendations to shut down two Baltimore public schools that offer accelerated graduation programs in the city.

"Let this experience be a wake-up call to Baltimore City schools," she said.

Baltimore school officials declined to comment for this article.

'They have to earn it'

Stewart emphasized that students who came to her obtained the same diploma as 12th-graders who attend four years of high school. She said that she generally required Baltimore students to be at least 18, though sometimes she would make an exception for 17-year-olds.

More importantly, she said, the standards for all students were high.

"I let all the social workers know from the beginning: 'Don't bring me kids who aren't smart, and don't give me kids who can't read or write,'" Stewart said. "They're not getting anything, they have to earn it. A lot of them did a lot better than the regular students."

Stewart said students had to pass a series of exams, which she called "diagnostic tests," to earn the diploma, and if they didn't, they had to attend the school for a year.

She said that if a Baltimore student didn't pass the exams, she gave the $500 fee back. She said she did not extend classes to the Baltimore students because they lived so far away. She declined to specify the subjects covered on the tests.

DiJohn said he took a battery of exams that included math, English and social studies.