By Mc Nelly Torres
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Rodolfo M. Rodriguez, a 24-year-old cashier at a gas station in Davie, was searching online for a school that would allow him to earn a high school diploma.
It was February, and Rodriguez found Continental Academy, a virtual school based in Miramar.
“Study at home at your own pace,” Continental Academy’s website advertised. “No classes to attend.”
The father of two boys, ages 4 and 3, paid the initial $350 fee and began to take courses in math, reading, science and English. In about four weeks, Rodriguez completed the program without initiating any communication with teachers or receiving guidance from school staff, he said.
Continental Academy’s Written Response to FCIR
After declining interview requests, Continental Academy provided written responses to 10 questions from FCIR.
But Rodriguez’s dreams of obtaining a college education and pursuing a career as a dental or medical assistant to better provide for his family were dashed in March after Concorde Career Institute, a technical-vocational school that specializes in health care training, refused to accept his Continental Academy diploma.
The reason: Continental Academy has not been accredited by an academic standards organization that Concorde accepts. In other words, as far as Miramar-based Concorde Career Institute was concerned, Rodriguez’s Continental Academy diploma was just a piece of paper.
“The (Continental Academy) website said that it was accredited,” Rodriguez, a high school dropout, said. “I put so much work into this para nada (for nothing).”
Claudette Simpson, head of admissions at Concorde, said the school turns away many students because they don’t have a “valid” diploma, according to Concorde’s criteria. Concorde accepts private high school diplomas from schools that have been accredited by a group recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
“We have a list of schools that we won’t accept diplomas from,” Simpson said, without revealing an exact number of schools but explaining that Concorde’s list has grown over the years. “We are very diligent about this.”
Continental Academy is one of the schools on that list.
Tammy Dawn Shedd, of Cornelia, Ga., has also struggled with Continental’s lack of credentials. Five colleges, including Virginia Tech, have turned her down because they wouldn’t accept her Continental diploma.
The problem is that many vocational schools and institutions of higher learning do not recognize the two accrediting organizations, the National Association for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools and the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools, which accredit Continental.
“They cheated me of about $500,” Shedd, 32, said because none of the colleges she applied to would accept her Continental Academy diploma.
Rodriguez and Shedd are two of 59 students from around the country who have filed complaints with the Florida Attorney General’s Office, the Better Business Bureau and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services against Continental Academy since 2006. They allege Continental Academy provided false information about accreditation.
These students, many of whom said they graduated with honors from Continental Academy, reported that colleges nationwide, including Virginia Tech and Southwestern College in Ohio, have refused to accept them because their high school diploma is from Continental.
Their complaints underscore a fundamental problem in distance learning and online education. Dozens of organizations accredit schools, but the U.S. higher education community at large only recognizes a handful of accrediting organizations as legitimate, education experts said. If you obtain a high school diploma from an organization not widely recognized by colleges and post-secondary schools, as Rodriguez did, then your degree is worthless.
The Better Business Bureau has given Continental an “F” rating because the school failed to resolve a handful of complaints in a timely manner, and in some cases, school officials have not responded to several complaints filed against the school.
In a written statement to Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, Jeffrey Lopez, vice principal of Continental Academy, said Continental takes complaints seriously. But Lopez admitted that Continental Academy’s diploma is refused by colleges and post-secondary schools so often that the Miramar school keeps a form letter on hand to address the issue.
“When we challenge the college’s decision to deny admission to one of our graduates in writing, we never hear from the college and never hear from the graduate,” Lopez said in a written statement. Lopez provided a copy of the form letter to FCIR.
It is unclear, however, if any colleges have accepted Continental graduates after receiving the school’s appeal letter. None of the Continental graduates who spoke with FCIR received this type of support from Continental Academy after colleges refused to accept their high school diplomas.
In connection with this article, Lopez refused FCIR’s request for an in-person meeting and later canceled a scheduled phone interview. Instead, he requested questions in writing. FCIR e-mailed 13 questions, of which Lopez answered only 10.
“Continental Academy has advised students who Continental Academy is accredited by and that the acceptance of credits or graduate is always the prerogative of the receiving institution or employer,” Lopez wrote.
Continental Academy doesn’t provide a disclaimer on its site to warn students about this issue and students who spoke with FCIR said Continental Academy did not make this clear to them before they enrolled.
A big market with no regulation
Distance-learning schools, traditionally done through mail as students received materials and worked at home, have been around for years. But with the explosive growth of the Internet, many of these operations have flourished online, reaching large groups of students with little or no oversight from state and federal regulators.
In 2004, the Chronicle of Higher Education described high schools and for-profit colleges lacking accreditation as “degree mills,” reporting that these operations have grown into a billion-dollar industry.
Education experts and consumer advocates said many of these online high schools use accrediting groups with questionable credentials, giving the schools an endorsement that unsuspecting students often do not question. And these schools appeal to would-be students by offering study-at-home convenience and fast results while charging $300 to $1,200 for a high school diploma.
“It’s a mess, and we are all discovering this is a problem in all states,” said Alan L. Contreras, a national expert and administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a state agency that administers laws and standards for post-secondary schools to ensure colleges operating in Oregon offer degrees that have credentials accepted by the state.
The Florida Commission for Independent Education, a state regulatory agency that oversees for-profit and public post-secondary institutions in the state, has received complaints from consumers about suspected diploma mills, said Tom Butler, press secretary for the Florida Department of Education.
“Keep in mind that this is a national problem and Florida does not have any statutory authority over the schools that are running diploma mills,” Butler said. “Students must be prudent and do their diligence when pursuing admission to schools.”
Since private schools aren’t regulated by state or federal agencies, the Better Business Bureau has sounded alarms about certain schools.
In 2009, for example, the BBB issued a warning about high school diplomas and advanced degrees from Belford High School and Belford University, both based in Texas. The Better Business Bureau received 117 complaints about the schools from students living in 40 states.
In November 2009, a group of former students filed a class-action lawsuit against Belford High School, alleging the Texas school defrauded them by using two “two fictitious accrediting entities created to give Belford High School the appearance of legitimacy.”
The federal government has just begun to examine online schools like Continental Academy.
In recent years, federal education officials identified more than 13 online high schools described as “potentially operating as diploma mills” and suspected of granting at least 9,500 diplomas since 2005, Mary Mitchelson, then acting inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education, said during Oct. 14, 2009, testimony before the House Committee on Education and Labor.
Federal investigators are interested in high school diploma mills because 11 percent of all federal financial aid – about $12 billion a year in grants and student loans – has gone to students who earned high school diplomas from schools not accredited to award them, Mitchelson said.
No organization tracks the total number of online high schools operating in the United States or the number of students attending these schools. But a 2008 survey from the Sloan Consortium and Babson Survey Research Group, a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts whose mission is to help institutions and educators improve the quality of online education, found that 3.9 million students who attended secondary and post-secondary schools were enrolled in at least one online course in 2007 — a 12 percent increase over the previous year.
In Florida, 2,189 private K-12 schools, including online schools, are registered with the state Department of Education. More than 250,000 students were enrolled in private schools in Florida during the 2007-08 school year, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Education that collects and analyzes education data.
The state Department of Education doesn’t regulate private schools. By state law, these schools are required to register with the state and submit an annual survey that includes student enrollment, number of teachers, administrators and other staff and student demographics. However, officials do not verify information submitted by schools, according to state officials. The state’s private school directory identifies religious-based, nonprofit or for-profit schools, but it doesn’t specify which ones are distance learning and online schools.
Besides a high school diploma, students can earn a GED (General Educational Development) certification, which is inexpensive — $50 on average to take the test — and widely accepted by many colleges and employers. Students can contact the nearest GED Testing Center to take the rigorous seven-and-a-half-hour test, which measures knowledge of social studies, science, math, reading and writing. Tests are not offered online.
CT Turner, associate director of marketing and public relations for GED Testing Service, a program of the American Council on Education, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that develops and delivers the GED test, said few online high schools issue diplomas that are accepted by colleges, universities and post-secondary schools.
“People are so desperate to earn that credential, and many of these schools are preying on people who are struggling financially,” Turner said. “Another problem is that there are a lot of people who are not reporting this to state agencies.”
Schools seeking accreditation from a respected accrediting organization must pass a review to ensure they meet educational standards. The accreditation gives individual diplomas value because its teachers, coursework, facilities, equipment and supplies are reviewed on a routine basis to ensure students receive a quality education.
But an accreditation only has value if the U.S. educational community at large accepts the organization that provides the accreditation.
Mark Elgart, chief executive of the respected Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, said few well-recognized groups are willing to accredit distance-learning schools. AdvancED, now the parent organization of SACS, currently accredits 130 distance-learning schools and has accredited more than 27,000 schools in 69 countries.
“The online world is largely unregulated,” Elgart said. “States need to enact more regulation because they have a responsibility to the consumer.”
AdvancED staff visits schools every five years and works with administrators to ensure adherence to the highest educational standards. Schools that do not meet the standards are monitored closely.
“We have hundreds of schools that lose accreditation every year,” Elgart said. “The process pushes some schools out because they can’t meet the standards and criteria.”
Seeking an education
Continental Academy’s website advertises that the school has helped 95,000 students earn high school diplomas since its founding in 1996. Graduates have moved on to higher-paying jobs, vocational schools, community colleges, universities and new careers, according to Continental.
The school also provides student testimonials — from adults in Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida — showing pictures and only listing first names.
When Rodriguez found Continental Academy, he thought the school was fine based on its website.
But after Concorde would not accept his high school diploma, Rodriguez called Continental Academy and complained to the principal. Continental officials simply told him the school is accredited without providing further explanation, he said. In response, Rodriguez filed a complaint with the Florida Attorney General’s Office.
“I’m angry,” Rodriguez said. “I can’t understand how Continental Academy has been allowed to take advantage of people who are trying to complete a high school education and attend college.”
Continental Academy, which is registered with the state Department of Education, as all private schools are in Florida, obtained accreditation on July 26, 2006, from SACS, one of the widely respected organizations. But in 2009, Continental Academy withdrew its accreditation, according to Jennifer Oliver, a spokesperson for AdvancED.
“They didn’t want to comply with requirements that would ensure they met the standards of accreditation,” Oliver said without providing details.
In April 2009, the Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation, a now-defunct umbrella group created in 1994 by six regional accreditation groups including SACS, issued a letter to address concerns about Continental’s accreditation status.
The letter said the “Fast Track Program,” which Continental offered at the time, “does not meet the spirit and intent of a high school diploma.”
Lopez said Continental officials were not aware of the letter until a parent brought it to their attention.
“After much consideration, Continental Academy’s governing body has decided that it is not in the best interest of Continental Academy to maintain its accreditation with AdvancED/SACS/CASI,” Continental officials said in a statement to FCIR. “Aside from the lack of institutional support and structural confusion that Continental Academy received from SACS, a stark reality of maintaining SACS accreditation is that a school or school district must have a significant amount of financial resources available for continuous school improvement.”
Lopez said CITA’s letter has affected thousands of Continental Academy graduates who earned a SACS-accredited high school diploma through Fast Track from July 2006 to May 2008 because colleges and universities will not recognize Continental Academy graduates from this program.
After withdrawing Continental Academy accreditation from SACS, Continental owners tried to get SACS to accredit a new school, Elgart said.
SACS officials refused.
“It was the same people behind the school with questionable business practices,” Elgart said.
Continental reported to the state that it graduated 13,204 students during the 2008-09 academic year, according to its annual survey for the state Department of Education. In the 2009-10 survey, Continental reported a staff of eight, with six administrators and two counselors, and 2,984 students were enrolled for that academic year – a student-to-staff ratio of 373-to-1.
Lopez said in a statement to Florida Center for Investigative Reporting that Continental has 18 employees. He didn’t specify the number of certified teachers, as FCIR requested, and would not provide resumes for the company’s principals.
When contacted by phone with follow-up questions, Lopez said: “We are done with that interview. Just use your professional judgment and good luck to you.”
The National Association for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools and the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools now accredit Continental. NALSAS accredits based only on one standard: consumer protection. NCACS is simply a membership group.
Ed Nagel, chief executive officer of NALSAS, defended Continental and his organization’s accreditation of the school.
“(Continental Academy) is helping people go on with their education and get better jobs,” Nagel said.
Nagel said NALSAS has conducted three on-site visits at Continental Academy since 2000, has reviewed the school’s marketing materials, and has ensured the school employs certified teachers.
“They have one of the best education programs in the country,” said Nagel, also the former chair and national office manager of NCACS. “They are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing.”
NALSAS has accredited 13 private schools in Florida, including Continental.
Continental now list three programs on its website: P.A.C.E., an accelerated online high school diploma program for adults 18 and older; O.U.T.R.E.A.C.H., an online high school diploma program for students 16 and older; and S.E.A.L., a high school diploma program through mail for students 16 years and older. The school charges $350 to $850 depending on the program.
Florida incorporation records indicate that Home School of America Inc. owns Continental Academy. Those records also list Nersy Lopez, 63, and Jeffrey Lopez, 42, both of Davie, and Joseph A. Aguilera, 59, of Miami, as the registered agents of Continental Academy. Although state law does not require it, none of these individuals has a teaching certificate with the Florida Department of Education.
Nersy and Jeffrey Lopez and Aguilera are also listed as registered agents of other businesses, including Home School of America Inc. and Home School of America Holdings LLC. Jeffrey Lopez and Aguilera are listed as registered agents of Southeastern High School, another virtual school. Incorporation records list the same address in Miramar as the principal address for these businesses.
Jeffrey Lopez is the school principal of Southeastern High School, a virtual school established in 2007, according to the most recent annual survey submitted to the Department of Education. Like Continental Academy, Southeastern received its accreditation from NALSAS and is a member of NCACS.
In his professional profile on LinkedIn, Lopez lists himself as the senior vice president of finance and corporate affairs of Home School of America.
Continental Academy’s revenue and profits are unknown. But its principals, records show, are millionaires. In 2005, Jeffrey and Nersy Lopez created N & J Lopez Family Limited Partnership, putting down $1 million in initial contributions. The partners anticipated contributions of up to $5 million, records show, and Nersy Lopez signed as the general partner.
Both Lopezes have made substantial investments in real estate as well.
In 2006, Nersy and Jeffrey Lopez bought a 7,334-square-foot house in Davie valued now at $943,870, for which Jeffrey Lopez transferred ownership to Nersy Lopez on Nov. 18. The same day, Jeffrey Lopez transferred ownership, again to Nersy Lopez, of an undeveloped property in Plantation, which he purchased in July for $280,000, records show. Nersy Lopez also owns a house in Southwest Ranches valued at $896,840.
What’s more, in 1996, Nersy Lopez and Joseph Aguilera bought a residence in Pembroke Pines for $86,480 at the time. A year later, they transferred the property to Lopez, who sold the residence in 1999 for $116,000.
A diploma with no value
In recent years, Continental Academy has described itself in marketing materials as “trustworthy” and a “recognized educational institution.” In online promotional materials, the school encourages would-be students to earn a high school diploma instead of a GED.
The school also stated in a press release that Continental was accredited by the Florida Department of Education, though the state Department of Education doesn’t accredit schools.
Wendell Scott, 32, said he was impressed with Continental Academy’s brochure when he received it on the mail.
“It was a beautiful brochure, and I thought they were the real deal,” Scott said.
And he didn’t question accreditation when he decided to spend more than $500 to obtain his high school diploma. Scott, of Cincinnati, Ohio, completed the course work by mail in 2004.
Scott, who lost his job as a manager for a security company earlier this year, decided to pursue a new career and attend college. But after recently applying to several colleges, including Southwestern College in Cincinnati, Ohio, Scott learned the schools would not accept his Continental diploma.
“I’m very upset about this,” Scott said. “This puts me in a bad position and is making it harder for me to attend college. I’m unemployed and I’m not even a high school graduate.”
Mc Nelly Torres is a reporter for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.