“Give it up for the Class of 2013!”
This has all the trappings of a high school graduation.
The right soundtrack — with “Pomp and Circumstance” looping continuously – lots of enthusiastic cheers, even tears.
But this isn’t a traditional high school.
It’s a private home school program called Marque Learning Center.
Students enroll for different reasons. Some failed math. Others are frustrated trying to pass a state exam. A number of them have babies.
So they pay a fee, take a test at home and graduate.
At the graduation ceremony in North Houston, students cross the stage one by one and receive their diploma.
“School has always been easy for me. I just didn’t want to attend classes, but you just have to do work. You just have to take a test,” says Alexis Johnson.
The test has multiple choice questions and essays.
Students say it’s easier than public school where they now have to pass five tests to graduate.
It’s also faster.
“It only took me two weeks. Some people it take longer though,” Johnson adds.
But this graduation doesn’t always have a happy ending.
“It’s worthless. It’s completely worthless.”
Amanda Vann is twenty-six-years-old. She dropped out of high school her senior year.
She wanted to set a good example for her two kids. So last year she enrolled with Marque Learning Center.
She thought she had graduated from high school, until she tried to enroll at a community college in Central Texas.
“They ended up telling me it was not an accredited school. I cried in the office at the college, that’s for sure. All of my hard work that I put in to Marque — just to find out it wasn’t even accredited — I was upset.”
She’s one of several students who have filed complaints against Marque with the Better Business Bureau.
The director of Marque Learning Center didn’t respond to multiple interview requests for this story.
But an employee at their office in Northeast Houston, Eli Davila, dismisses critics who call them a “diploma mill.”
“I guess when you do a good thing, there will always be critics.”
He says they’re giving students a second chance. The center claims to have graduated more than 100,000 students since 2003.
Its website notes that by Texas law, community colleges and universities here can’t discriminate against students from nontraditional programs.
But they also say they can’t guarantee acceptance at a technical or trade school.
Many people worry what kind of education students are actually getting.
“I don’t think they’re providing any service. They’re just asking for money. It varies from 100 dollars to several hundred dollars. And these kids, that’s a lot of money,” says Sarah Winkler, a School Board member in Alief where more students are enrolling in schools like Marque.
The state of Texas doesn’t regulate these private schools.
A major lobby group doesn’t want that to change.
“I don’t think you want to make traditional, well-performing private schools suffer restrictions or a loss of freedom based on a handful of bad players,” says Tim Lambert, president of the Texas Home School Coalition’s political action committee.
Lambert suggests instead of a new law, the attorney general should prosecute what he calls “diploma mills” on a case by case basis.
Back at the graduation ceremony for Marque Learning Center, students celebrate and toss their caps in the air.
They’re told they’re “no longer losers, you’re winners.”
Later if students try to enroll at a community college, they may have to take a placement exam. The bar is even higher at a four year university that requires the SAT or ACT.