Traditional public high school isn't for everyone. Sometimes, students need alternatives that better suit their needs.
As recent events in Zephyrhills revealed, though, not all alternatives lead to the desired results. Two teens who left Zephyrhills High for CHS Inc. High School discovered the hard way that the credentials they thought they had earned weren't worth the paper on which they were printed.
They're now out their payments and seeking a GED to get into technical schools.
It doesn't have to be that way. Students in home school and other private programs can and do gain access to higher education all the time. But selecting a credible program requires a lot of front-end work to avoid problems at the end of the line.
"The process of selecting a school for a child is one of the most important decisions a parent will make," said Adam Miller, executive director of the Florida Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice. "They need to make an informed decision."
The department offers a series of questions for students and parents to ask before committing to any school.
"We advise parents to look at the philosophy and mission of a school," Miller said, "to see if it is something you think aligns with what you think your student's educational needs are."
Other key points include checking teacher certifications and relevant experience, the quality of the overall academic program, and any accreditations the school carries. A school visit also is critical, Miller added, to determine the engagement level in classrooms.
If you're concerned about your future options, he said, be sure to ask the school for a list of where previous students have gone after graduation.
"Many schools track that information," Miller said.
You can also talk to people in nearby public and private schools, to see if they have had students return from a specific program and how their credits transferred back into the district graduation requirements.
Allison Kanewa, senior class guidance counselor at Wiregrass Ranch High School, said she has seen students fall through the cracks because they left high school for unaccredited programs that didn't translate into a recognized diploma.
"Taking them to England doesn't mean they earned an English credit," Kanewa said.
That's why the school seeks to meet with the families of every student who transfers out, to ensure that they understand the options available to them.
The public school system offers credit recovery and adult education programs, including the GED, which is acceptable to get into community college and many technical programs, Kanewa said.
"If they decide to opt for home school and don't want to be part of the district . . . we have a dropout prevention coordinator track them every quarter to make sure they are in some type of program that is certified and legitimate," she said.
Registered homeschool programs can use online courses, such as Pasco eSchool or Florida Virtual, to meet recognized requirements. Homeschoolers also can submit portfolios to the district for review, to ensure that their courses comply with state graduation standards.
"The ones that fall through the cracks are the ones that don't register with the district. They go on their own, and then go to USF and are told 'No,' "Kanewa said. "That's usually when they end up coming back to the school. . . . Home education is very different than homeschooling."
Done right, students can qualify for Bright Futures scholarships and degree-bearing programs.
Homeschooled students seeking a Bright Futures scholarship must be registered with a school district for their junior and senior years, and submit an ACT or SAT score along with a sealed, official transcript from a Florida public high school, Florida Virtual School, dual-enrollment coursework from a Florida state (community) college or university, or an FDOE-registered private high school.
A parent-generated transcript is not accepted.
The same is true to gain admission to a state college. If an applicant doesn't have proof of high school graduation, Pasco-Hernando State College will accept a GED in addition to the official transcripts. Without such documentation, the application won't be considered.
The Department of Education has no authority to license, approve, accredit or regulate private schools, including private home schools, Miller said. Doing the homework up front is the best way to protect your future.
"Certainly, you want to be careful when you select a school," he said. "We would encourage parents to do their due diligence and make that selection very carefully."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek on Twitter. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.