Online students lose out: Military limits number of recruits with non-traditional diplomas

Jared Dennis, 18, practices the cello at his Lexington home. Dennis is considered in 'Tier 2' status.

Mary Ann Chastain

COLUMBIA -- Students graduating from the growing ranks of online high schools are running into a hurdle if their goal is to join the military: The Pentagon doesn't want many recruits with non-traditional diplomas.

Many would-be soldiers like Ryker Packard, 17, of Fassett, Pa., say they weren't aware the armed services have a policy of not taking more than 10 percent of recruits with a non-traditional high school diploma. Critics, including some in Congress, say the military is behind the times and point to the growth in online teaching and testing at all levels of education, including college degrees.

"It just grinds my gears," said Packard, who wants to become an Army diesel mechanic after graduating from Pennsylvania's Agora Cyber Charter School in June.

Packard said his conversation with an Army recruiter came to a brusque end after he told him he was due to graduate from a virtual school. "He just wouldn't talk to me," said Packard.

Packard's mom, Sherri, said her son switched to online classes after floundering in a geometry course at his brick-and-mortar school. Once he got the attention of online teachers, his grades improved, she said.

Packard said her son's school is fully accredited by the state of Pennsylvania, which requires students to pass the same tests and meet the same curriculum requirements as those in traditional schools.

"It's part of the public school system," said Sherri Packard, 43. "It's considered one of the best in the state."

Job prospects amid the rolling hills and farms of northern Pennsylvania are slim, Ryker said. "My options are to work for the gas company or on a pig farm," the dejected teen said in a telephone interview.

Ryker and his family unknowingly ran into a policy the Department of Defense has that ranks graduates of traditional high schools as "Tier 1" and those from alternatives as "Tier 2" status. Tier 1 graduates now make up 99 percent of all recruits for all military branches, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez. The secondary status includes virtual and homeschoolers, as well as those who've left high school and earned a GED or General Education Development certificate.

Lainez said the Department of Defense limits all branches of the military to accepting no more than 10 percent of recruits with what is known as an "alternate high school credential."

Those who've opted out of the traditional educational system just don't stick with military service, she said. That includes students from what she called "any computer-based, virtual-learning program."

It comes down to money because its costs $45,000 to replace someone who hasn't met their full term, she said.

One of the main backers of virtual schools says it has been seeking a change in the military's policy because the number of students attending online is growing.

Peter Groff, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said his organization estimates 168,310 students attended virtual schools in 2009-2010. They know of 219 charter schools that are purely online, and 134 that are a hybrid of bricks-and-mortar and virtual schooling, he said.

Projected enrollment is expected to increase next year by 7,000 students, Groff said.

States such as Minnesota have had programs for 20 years, while Utah, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania also have seen strong growth, he said. In all, 40 states and the District of Columbia have some form of charter school program allowed, he said.

Jared Dennis of Lexington, S.C., said he was devastated when he sought out an Air Force recruiter, but was told he was in "Tier 2" status. He was told he could enlist only after he took about a year of college-level classes.

"It was heartbreaking to say the least," said the 18-year-old, who said he wants to follow a family tradition of joining the service and become a military policeman. He is set to graduate from the Connections Academy in Columbia in June, one of South Carolina's five virtual public charter schools.

Dennis's mother, Alice, said she sought out the virtual charter school after her son was barred from returning to his public school on a weapons violation. He left a pocket knife in his jacket, violating the school system's zero-tolerance policy. They sought an alternative where Jared could continue with honors-level classes, she said.

One student who was able to get the military's attention is 20-year-old Greg Bush, who is attending Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, on a four-year Army ROTC scholarship.

The Delaware, Ohio, native said he thinks attending Ohio's Virtual Academy was a plus, both academically and socially. He was able to take Advanced Placement courses in English and literature and was able to feed an interest in military history and earned a 3.7 grade point average.

"I was a very introverted person, and doing so much course work on line drove me to reach out" to make friendships, he said. "It really benefited me."