Ebony Scott remembers vividly the day she got the piece of paper she hoped would change her life.
After receiving her diploma, she cried, celebrated, took pictures and went to TGI Friday's for dinner. She hadn't spoken to her grandmother in more than three years, but called her to share her accomplishment.
"She nearly had a heart attack," Scott recalled of the day in September. "She wanted a copy. She always said that before she passed away, she wanted her grandkids to have their high school diploma. I felt so proud that I could do that. That's all she talks about now."
But Scott recently found out that the diploma from a private school in Philadelphia — where dozens of Baltimore foster youths were sent to obtain diplomas in a day — wouldn't be the key to a better future. When she tried to enroll in Anne Arundel Community College, she couldn't attend because college officials said her diploma was invalid.
Scott, who has been in the Baltimore foster care system since she was 9, was one of 80 students the Baltimore City Department of Social Services sent on a one-day trip to Crooked Places Made Straight Christian Academy with $500 and hopes of obtaining a high school diploma after a three-hour exam.
After a Baltimore Sun investigation documented how the department spent $40,000 over about 18 months to send dozens of youths to Crooked Places, its accrediting body concluded that the private school was a "diploma mill," and the school's operator shut down the one-day diploma program.
Now those students are living with the consequences.
Some may not be eligible for financial aid. While foster-care youths can get a free education at Maryland's public universities under state law, they must have a high school diploma or GED to qualify for the benefit.
And students who do not have a recognized high school diploma are not be eligible for federal and state financial aid, according to the state's higher- education commission.
It's up to each higher-education institution to determine whether to recognize the Crooked Places diploma. At least two — Anne Arundel Community College and the Community College of Baltimore County — have rejected the Crooked Places diploma as proof of high school completion.
Moreover, those students are likely to have a tougher time getting into a four-year college. While many colleges accept graduates from nonaccredited schools, they typically must show official transcripts or other documentation. The only paperwork students received at the Philadelphia school was the diploma.
Many community colleges have open enrollment, meaning students don't have to have a high school diploma to attend. But some require a diploma or GED to take classes for credit.
The Crooked Places Made Straight Christian Academy is a private, nonlicensed school, according to records on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website. The state didn't require the school to be licensed because of its religious affiliation — it also doubles as a church.
In November, amid revelations about Crooked Places' practices, the then-director of Baltimore's social services department, Molly McGrath Tierney, said that 90 percent of the city youths sent to Crooked Places secured college acceptances or jobs with the diplomas.
Many of the youths were about to age out of the system. Scott will turn 21 in June.
Tierney, who resigned her post in February, said the diplomas "opened doors where they would have otherwise been slammed shut."
Scott said she was most hurt that the social services department didn't tell her the diploma could cause problems. When she asked her social worker why her diploma was rejected, she was directed to The Sun's article in November.
"They didn't even tell us that this was out there," she said. "They never even said they were sorry. They set us up for failure. They need to fix this."
David H. Thompson Jr., interim director of the social services department, said officials are prepared to help any students affected by their decision to send them to the school. In light of questions about the students' ability to attend college, he said, officials would reach out to them.
"We regret that any youth were affected by this issue," Thompson said in a statement. "Working with each one of these young people individually, we'll develop a plan that will help them reach their educational goals."
Tierney could not be reached for comment. After The Sun's investigation, she vowed a review of all alternative education programs foster children use. Thompson said the review was continuing.
Scott, an aspiring chef, said Anne Arundel Community College officials told her she could not attend because her diploma was "fake" and from an unaccredited school.
"I was so excited that I would cry because I would be able to get a job and finally be able to take care of myself," Scott said of the prospect of attending college. "A lot of us who age out of foster care don't have people to lean back on, and we had this diploma that was supposed to be our ticket out when we had nothing else."
John Grabowski, dean of enrollment services for Anne Arundel Community College, said he couldn't comment specifically on Scott's individual situation but said access to financial aid, which requires a valid diploma, was likely her obstacle.
"You cannot attend class unless you are registered, and you cannot be registered unless you have paid for the class," Grabowski said. "It seems this experience with that school is coming back to her."
While students without a high school diploma or equivalency can attend many two-year colleges, the standards at four-year institutions are often different.
According to University System of Maryland rules, students who come from nonaccredited or nonapproved high schools will be reviewed for admission on a case-by-case basis. Factors such as scores on nationally standardized tests and high school coursework are reviewed, and official transcripts from high schools are required.
The Baltimore students, who were driven up Interstate 95 in a van, took a three-hour exam to receive the same diplomas that are given to students who complete four years of high school course work.
The school's principal, Winona Stewart, said that she ran the program for 15 years and that many of the students who obtained diplomas from her program went on to attend college and entered the military. She described the exam as similar to a GED, but declined to say what content was tested.
The regulated, nationally recognized GED requires a mastery of skills on several tests taken over two days and usually includes preparation classes.
Scott dropped out of a city public school in the 10th grade, when she said she was too prideful to repeat a grade. She said she was enrolled in a GED program before she was assured by Tierney that Crooked Places was a good option.