"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.
Stewart said Friday that she was "hurt" that she couldn't continue to help those who are prepared enough to bypass school and go to college.
"Maybe one day God will bless me to restart the program," she said. "It's a shame that you got people who are so brilliant, and they just need to go to the next level. But maybe I can do it again, and do it the right way."
Tierney said the diploma program at Crooked Places Made Straight spread among her foster-care youths by word of mouth, and she had received no evidence in the last year and a half that the department shouldn't offer it as an option.
She added that she did not refer foster care youths to Crooked Places Made Straight — though the department paid the $500 fee — and would not restrict them from attending the school because they are old enough to make their own decisions.
"I am a champion of my older youth … to have access to education," she said. "The paths for each of them is different."
Tierney acknowledged that the department's decision to provide and fund the option for students to obtain a diploma in a day is controversial, but said she had taken "a longer view."
When she took her post in 2007, she said, the only obligation she had for older youths in foster care was making sure that they knew how to sign up for food stamps.
"If that's the best we can do, then shame on us," she said. "If Crooked Places Made Straight means they could go to college and choose what they want to do with their lives — then yeah, I'm OK with that. Beats the heck out of food stamps."