In only four years, Leon County’s high school graduation rate jumped nearly 30 percent.
But it didn’t necessarily happen because students were suddenly doing better in school.
And it came at a price — more than $2 million.
The dramatic improvement began only after the district contracted with for-profit online education companies to help struggling high schoolers get a diploma.
Only 68 percent of students in the class of 2011 graduated and nearly 3 percent dropped out. Of the state’s 67 counties, Leon ranked 33rd in the graduation rate and had the 15th highest dropout rate.
The class of 2015, however, fared much better, achieving an 87 percent graduation rate.
Many of the students received diplomas through the online companies instead of state-issued high school diplomas. Administrators classify these students as private school transfers, which takes them off the district’s books. They are no longer counted in the graduation rate.
Critics say the online programs rob students of a quality education and devalue the high school diploma in general. They also claim administrators over-enroll students as a way to game the school accountability system.
Walt Gardner, an education advocate and former classroom teacher for 25 years, told the Tallahassee Democrat the online companies are mills that churn out “counterfeit diplomas.”
“This isn’t about student learning,” Gardner said, “but pushing people through quickly — in the most egregious form. They are not college-ready. We are shortchanging students and cheating taxpayers.”
But Superintendent Jackie Pons said the online programs lend the district a “double benefit” — more students earning diplomas and a boosted graduation rate.
“Times have changed in education,” Pons said. “These aren’t just statistics … These are students, individuals … If we don’t offer these types of options to these students they can never recover… I know they cost us money, but it also costs us when one of these kids drops out of school. It costs us for a lifetime.”
Two kinds of diplomas
At high school graduation ceremonies, there is no way to tell which students earned a Florida diploma or a diploma from an online company.
To earn a Florida diploma, students have to meet certain requirements, like passing state tests. Students who don’t fare well on the exams can earn the needed credits by reaching a set score on approved post-secondary readiness tests, like the ACT.
But through EdOptions Academy, an online diploma program contracted by the district, students can bypass those requirements. They can then walk alongside their classmates during graduation ceremonies with a private school diploma, paid for by the district.
Both types of diplomas allow students to join the military, go to college or apply for a job as a high school graduate. EdOptions is accredited through AdvancED, which oversees the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
Chiles High School Principal Joe Burgess said at the time it was more important to get students over the hurdle of graduation rather than fixate on where the diplomas come from.
“When you go into your dentist office, have you ever asked them where they graduated from college?” Burgess asked. “High school? You could care less about the story in the background, as long as you got there. And sometimes that gets lost. Everybody doesn’t have the same story. The real American story is that it comes from all different kinds of places.”
A hefty tab
After Leon County Schools finished the 2010-11 year with lackluster graduation numbers, Pons set a simple goal — to “do better.”
The district began spending more money than ever before on online education.
In 2012, LCS paid $655,573 to a handful of virtual education companies. It was more than five times what the district spent on similar programs the previous year.
And the high-dollar contracts continued.
The tab was $533,576 in 2013-14 and $491,087 the following year. Another $449,800 went to the programs for 2015-16, according to a graduation committee report.
The most expensive and widely-used contract is with Edmentum, Inc., a decades-old company based in Minnesota, that runs EdOptions and Plato Courseware, which offers credit recovery classes.
These amounts do not include the $1.1 million paid since 2012 to Florida Virtual School, a state-run program students use for both credit recovery and first-attempt coursework.
More than 1,300 students enrolled there this year. This year, the bill was $575,029, a substantial increase from almost $100,000 the district paid for the program in 2011-12.
Taken out of the equation
Just four years ago, Rickards had the lowest graduation rate among the district’s traditional high schools. In 2012, only 58 percent graduated.
Godby had the second-lowest rate, with 69 percent.
But that changed after the district’s only predominantly black, federally funded high schools began using EdOptions.
By last year, Rickards’ graduation rate improved to 91 percent. Godby went up to 90 percent.
Called into question
EdOptions allows students to complete semesters’ worth of credits in weeks.
The program is only run out of computer labs at Rickards and Godby high schools and Success Academy. Students work alone at a computer, while a teacher sits by to answer questions.
Weeks, sometimes days, before their school’s graduation ceremony, students could receive an EdOptions diploma. Twelfth-graders are also afforded extra summer months to complete EdOptions courses for a diploma.
According to an LCS report, almost 200 students were enrolled in EdOptions Academy this year, at a cost of $1,300 per student, totaling $292,500. About 2,300 students took credit recovery classes with Plato.
District officials say they do not track how many credits are earned through online programs compared to the traditional classroom setting.
While many districts use EdOptions, it has not gone without debate in places like Monroe, Okaloosa and Pasco counties. Some school officials believed administrators and students were too dependent on the program. Others questioned whether it offered students the best learning opportunities.
“What you are seeing with credit recovery in Tallahassee, and in Florida, is happening across the nation. It is a scandal,” said Gardner. “This happens all the time, whenever pressure is on schools to produce something, like a higher graduation rate.”
Gardner, a lecturer for UCLA’s graduate school of education and writer of the “Reality Check” column for Education Week, believes online credit retrieval and diploma classes are not “quality” and lack rigor.
In some districts, up to one in four credits were earned through these programs. There were also instances of students answering multiple-choice exams incorrectly and still earning credit. Other students also received numerous credits in just weeks.
Critics of online credit recovery programs also point to new research that showed students fared better in face-to-face credit recovery than online courses. A 2016 American Institutes of Research study found high-schoolers were more likely to pass the course, earn higher scores on standardized tests and have a more positive attitude about the curriculum.
District officials say such studies do not account for all types of students.
“What’s best for kids is not a one size fits all solution,” said Assistant Superintendent Scotty Crowe. “We allow our students to have multiple pathways… That’s a true piece of the puzzle for the success.”
In defense of credit recovery
Local educators describe EdOptions as a lifeline for students more likely to dropout.
Pons said many students do not speed through the online courses quickly. The classes, he explained, are paced according to what a student knows and does not know.
In the end, he said, “they pass a test that shows they can do the work and get the credits they deserve.”
Principal Jessica Lowe, who heads the graduation committee and the district’s virtual school, said the administrators remain involved with the student, even after they begin online classes. At least 98 percent of students who enroll in EdOptions earn the private school diploma.
Lowe said that an EdOptions diploma offers students more opportunities than they would have with a GED.
Students are more likely able to enter U.S. military with a diploma. The military accepts a limited number of recruits who only hold a GED. Lowe also said they could attend college and receive federal financial aid, such as the Pell grant, but students can do that with a GED, too. However, high school diploma holders, across the board, have increased earnings potential than those with a GED.
“We want them to be prepared for the future,” Lowe said.
Lowe works alongside Assistant Principal Jessica Chapman, who vigorously speaks of students given “another chance.” Tears fill her eyes when she tells their stories.
She approaches her job with the passion of a social worker — visiting students’ homes if they miss too much class, taking late night phone calls from concerned family members, convincing drop-outs to come back to school, whatever it takes.
“We make student-centered decisions,” Chapman said. “This is a labor of love, it weighs on your heart.”