Crooked Places Made Straight

The Baltimore City Department of Social Services has sent 80 foster-care youths to the Crooked Places Made Straight Christian Academy in Philadelphia, where the majority of the Baltimore students have earned their high-school diplomas in one day. (Erica L. Green, Baltimore Sun / November 18, 2013)

The Baltimore Department of Social Services on Monday pledged a comprehensive review of alternative education programs for foster children, after revelations that it paid $40,000 to send students to a school in Philadelphia where they obtained a diploma in one day.

The Crooked Places Made Straight Academy, where 80 youths from Baltimore took a three-hour exam to obtain a Pennsylvania high school diploma, shut down its one-day program Friday after inquiries from The Baltimore Sun.

Molly McGrath Tierney, director of Baltimore's social services department, said in a statement Monday that the department remains committed to providing an array of options to foster care youths for whom education is the key to their success.

While she noted that many who received diplomas from Crooked Places have gone on to colleges and jobs, she said the department would review policies and procedures over the next several weeks and make any changes needed to ensure a "standard of excellence."

"Our experience with Crooked Places Made Straight reminds us that we have a solemn obligation to ensure that every alternative we provide is properly accredited, governed and authorized to do its work," Tierney said in the statement.

The head of the private Christian school's accrediting body, the National Association of Private Schools, compared Crooked Places to "a diploma mill" after inquiries from The Sun. Students took a series of exams, which the school's leader identified only as "diagnostic tests."

The school's principal, Winona Stewart, said that while she meant well, she realized that "shortcuts don't work."

Many youths in foster care take traditional roads to graduation or obtain a General Education Development (GED) certificate, but Tierney emphasized that alternative education programs have helped some students when traditional settings have not.

She has also said some students enroll in the city school system's programs that help students as old as 21 meet the state's graduation requirements at an accelerated pace. These are separate from the programs offered by the social services department.

The Crooked Places program was described as similar to a GED, though it deviated significantly from the regulated, nationally recognized program that requires a mastery of skills on several tests taken over two days and usually includes preparation classes.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement that she understood the social services department's desire to help the youths find quality programs that meet their unique needs. She pointed out that foster children typically have higher rates of homelessness, incarceration and unemployment.

"We should take a look and evaluate all programs with a focus on strengthening those that are proven to work and getting rid of those that don't, as we have done with several other programs in city government," Rawlings-Blake said.

The city social services department is run by the state's Department of Human Resources. A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley referred to Tierney's statement and declined to comment further.

Some advocates say the use of Crooked Places Made Straight as an alternative program for Baltimore children highlights deficiencies in the foster care system's efforts to ensure youths get a quality education.

Mitchell Y. Mirviss, an attorney at the Baltimore law firm Venable LLP who has represented foster care youths in a class action lawsuit that has been litigated for more than 25 years and led to a consent decree against the state, said he was "shocked" to learn that sending students to the Philadelphia school was a systematic practice.

"It's obviously a sign of serious problems," said Mirviss. "The government ... should not be selling false illusions to foster kids."

Mirviss said the Department of Social Services has not made education a priority. He pointed to court filings that show the agency struggles to meet the educational provisions of the consent decree.

In June, the department reported in its latest filing that about 61 percent of foster youths had an educational plan, while the consent decree requires 90 percent. Of the youths who had educational plans, the department reported that it had met the plan's obligations, such as providing tutoring, for about 25 percent.

The department also reported that it referred about 79 percent of special-education students for services but made a "reasonable effort" to secure services and attend education plan meetings for only 3 percent of them.

Mirviss said the department has struggled with educational issues because a greater percentage of foster children in their care are older and more insistent on making their own decisions.