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Florida clarifies GED diploma ban

TALLAHASSEE — Students who complete a Florida dropout prevention program will no longer get standard high school diplomas, but will still receive most of the same benefits as those who do, state officials said Monday as they tried to calm fears about the new policy.

The Department of Education also has backed off a decision to deny standard diplomas to thousands of struggling students already enrolled in the GED Exit Option program that began 21 years ago.

That exception has Manatee County School District officials happy.

“This is very good news for the students currently in the program,” district spokeswoman Margi Nanney said Monday. “The GED Exit Option has been a very viable choice for students with special circumstances and the importance of a high school diploma is paramount.”

As of Aug. 1, 15 Manatee district students were in the GED Exit Option program, which allows enrolled high school students in jeopardy of not graduating with their classmates to get a diploma if they pass FCAT and GED tests. Other requirements: they must be age 17 or older and enrolled in a dropout prevention program, Edwards said.

Students who qualify stay enrolled in school and walk with their classmates at graduation.

During the 2008-09 school year, 136 Manatee school district students got diplomas using the alternate program. The year before, there were 128.

The new no-diploma policy will apply only to those starting the program in the 2009-10 school year or later, the department said in a clarifying memo sent to school districts last week.

“People misinterpreted our original memo to mean that the program was being canceled, which was entirely not the case,” said department spokesman Tom Butler.

Under the new policy, students would instead receive high school equivalency diplomas.

The memo quotes a state law saying they “shall have equal status with other high school diplomas for all state purposes, including admission to any state university or community college.”

Equivalency diplomas also count toward graduation rates figured by the state. They are not, however, included in national rates.

Florida’s graduation rate typically ranks among the lowest in the nation.

In June, the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education determined 57.5 percent of Florida students completed high school on time with a regular diploma in 2006, compared to 69.2 percent nationwide. The state’s figure for 2006, though, was 71 percent.

Frances Haithcock, the state’s chancellor of public schools, created an uproar when she sent districts a July 31 memo saying the GED Exit Option would no longer be available as of Aug 1.

She noted the department concluded it had no legal authority to implement the program, nor issue standard diplomas to participants.

The Florida Association of District School Superintendents disagrees with that legal interpretation, said Joy Frank, the organization’s general counsel.

“There’s never been any question as to its legality until the last several months,” Frank said. “This is really to catch kids up who have fallen behind for various reasons.”

The department also received correspondence from worried and angry parents and teachers.

Kim Miros, a GED Exit Option teacher at Marion Technical Institute in Ocala, wrote that her students included one severely injured in an auto accident, another who had been shuttled among 20 foster homes and a third who was kidnapped and abused by a noncustodial parent.

“These students are not lazy,” Miros wrote. “They needed a chance, and the GED EX OP program gave them that chance.”

— Herald staff writer Natalie Neysa Alund contributed to this report.