New York State Exposed Education: Students question diplomas

Updated: 06/24/2014 12:13 AM
Created: 06/23/2014 6:34 AM WHEC.com
By: Brett Davidsen

News10NBC took a closer look at a program designed to help high school dropouts with job training and academic skills. The program was funded with taxpayer money, but it also allowed students to get their diplomas.

A group of high school dropouts is finding out there are no shortcuts to learning after enrolling in a high school completion program run by one of their former teachers. They got their diplomas, but they say the problem is getting anyone locally who will recognize their degrees.

Holly Catucci said, “I could have been working, I could have been going to a different GED program. Instead, I was in there. I feel like we were used."

The women say they were looking for a second chance. They all dropped out of high school, but say they wanted to get a diploma so they could enroll in college or trade school. They thought they had found the solution. In the summer of 2012, they enrolled in an eight-week program that tied together workforce readiness training with academic skills. It was offered by Excel Educational Services on Hudson Avenue.

The women say they were also told by Excel CEO Josh Mack that they could earn a high school diploma.

Jaelind Santana said, "He said we'd be getting our high school diploma and we'd be able to go to college after that and do whatever we want."

The students say it felt like a real school. They took notes and did assignments and online assessments. They even had a graduation ceremony. When it came time to apply to local community colleges and trade schools, the women say their diplomas were mostly rejected. 

Jeannette Santana said, “When I went to Continental and the lady told me, ‘just go get your GED, we can't accept these right here’. I wanted to cry."

But Mack says the program was a success in that it gave these students an opportunity they didn’t have before.

Josh Mack, Excel CEO, said, "Our main focus was really, ‘let's get these young people who have dropped out of school, let's get them some job training. Let's get them, if they can't get into school, let's get them a diploma that can help them to be more marketable.’">

Mack, who is also a teacher in the Rochester City School District, used the curriculum of Phillip Roy Academy, a private online school registered in Florida. The brochure says the school is accredited.   

Mack says the students were warned that not every college would recognize the virtual school's diploma.

Mack said, “But you can't force people to open their doors. That was the whole premise of this when we began this. They were well aware of that and they need to understand that. They never had that expectation."

Mack says the summer program was paid for with tax dollars and through a $40,000 job training grant from the New York State Department of Labor, which also called for an academic component. The students even received a $600 stipend for enrolling. Mack says the registration fee for the diploma was paid for by Excel and offered only as a bonus, but he also defended the online learning model as an alternative to a system that he says is failing so many students.

Mack said, "I have students who are taking algebra two and trigonometry who just want to be a nurse. Why do I have to take a state regents exam and take algebra two and trigonometry, which I know I can't pass. But I can't get a diploma unless, it's ridiculous."

The women say they still plan to pursue college even if means they have to go back and get a more traditional GED.

Jaelind Santana said, "We put in all this work, all this time. It can't be. I'm not ready to give up yet. Not yet." 

News10NBC did contact the Department of Labor to find out more about the requirements of the program, but they did not respond to our repeated requests for more information.

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