It began with a poster on a streetlight in downtown Miami: "High School Diploma. (305) 716-0909."
I dialed, and a chipper female voice answered, "Hello. High school."
InterAmerican Christian Academy
View the tests with the kids' responses and my official transcript at "I Cheated My Way Through High School Last Week."
Eight days and $399 in cash later, at the school's Doral "campus" — a cramped third-floor office next door to US Lubricant LLC and across the hall from a hair extensions company — I was grinning widely, accepting a framed diploma and an official transcript sporting a 3.41 GPA.
The degree is accepted at, among other local institutions of higher education, Miami Dade College. And it came blissfully free of that pesky annoyance suffered by thousands of local students graduating from high school this month: education.
At InterAmerican Christian Academy, my new alma mater, to earn a diploma you need only to pass five very brief and easy take-home tests. Because I can't be bothered with such things, I distributed them to local kids ages 8 to 13 to complete. Then I copied their answers.
The youngsters didn't break a sweat. "This is medium-easy," said the 8-year-old girl who completed high school English literature for me. "No problems," commented the 10-year-old who nailed math.
InterAmerican's cofounder, Manuel Morante Jr., once served a year of probation after being charged with armed robbery and resisting arrest with violence. The academy is accredited by an agency that the U.S. Department of Education does not recognize and that a watchdog site terms a "fake." But according to attendance records filed with the state, it has "enrolled" 230 students during its 17-month existence. At least 88 graduates have used its diplomas and bogus transcripts to gain admittance to Miami Dade College, according to that institution's registrar. (Florida International University is apparently pickier. It has admitted no one from InterAmerican.)
There's no telling how many of Florida's 1,713 private schools — which educate a third of a million students — are run like InterAmerican. Even as Gov. Rick Scott leads a charge to privatize education on a historic scale, our state's private schools are among the least regulated in the nation. "If a school like that exists," Cheryl Etters of the Florida Department of Education said when asked about InterAmerican and its lax standards, "we might know about it, but we can't really do anything."
The first red flag — besides the lack of a classroom — hinting that InterAmerican provides a less-than-traditional education is the selection of books lining its walls: Don't Eat This Book; James Herriot's Dog Stories; Vegetarian; San Francisco; Lee Iacocca's autobiography. Not the stuff of a typical high school library.
The academy is actually four small rooms on the third floor of a smoke-stained pink building on Doral's truck-clogged NW 36th Street. (InterAmerican has another "campus" in a Kendall office.) Romero Britto butterfly prints hang on the walls, as do the school's credentials: its registration with the Florida Department of Education — which means only that it filed minimal start-up paperwork with the state — and its certificate from Transworld Accrediting Commission International.
TACI, a California company, lists 14 PhDs among its directors but is among those on a list of "fake" agencies by watchdog site GetEducated.com. In a 1993 book, author Steve Levicoff called it an "accrediting mill." Contacted by email, the firm's president, Steve Anderson, claimed the allegations were "wrong" and said, "I have been a truth seeker and fraud fighter for many years."
I first traveled to InterAmerican's campus on a Friday afternoon. The woman in the office, who said her name was Alex, redefined the academic look in a rhinestone-studded Chanel T-shirt, Playboy-brand jeans, and sandals. She didn't speak much English and quickly put me on the phone with Manny Morante. He's listed on TACI's website as InterAmerican's secretary, but he seems to run the place.
I told him I was 28 years old and hoping to go to Miami Dade College. Manny, speaking with the chipper competence of a really good Ikea customer-service operator, was enthusiastic: "That's an excellent choice. I went to Miami Dade myself. We guarantee admission there."
I would later meet Manny, a thin, disarmingly earnest, 29-year-old Hialeah native, in person. But I already knew a bit about him from public records. In 2000, at age 18, he was charged with burglary, assault, and sexual battery on a minor. Prosecutors dropped those charges, and the case file has been mostly destroyed, but court records still indicate he was ordered to stay away from a child identified as "J.H."
Three years later, according to a police report, Manny was an "uninvited guest" at a Key Biscayne house party when he was caught rifling through a woman's purse. He picked up two beer bottles and tried to bludgeon his way out of the home. Then he led police officers on a wild foot chase through neighboring yards. Eventually he was pepper-sprayed, causing him to run face-first into a wire fence.
A judge withheld adjudication on the resulting felony charges — armed robbery and resisting an officer with violence — after he accepted two years of probation. (He was let off the hook after one year.) Before incorporating InterAmerican in January 2010, Manny briefly co-owned a Doral landscaping company. His partner in the school, and its president, is Mayankys Cabrera. A tall, officious 25-year-old, she was previously an office clerk making $2,240 a month, according to records filed in a 2007 divorce.
Florida statute bars those convicted of felonies of "moral turpitude" from running private schools. But the state does not conduct background checks, says DOE spokesperson Etters. It's unclear if probation from the alleged Key Biscayne rampage violates that law.
Anyway, after Manny extolled his school's virtues, I shelled out a $60 down payment and received the five tests that represent the school's entire curriculum: mathematics, earth science, English literature, government, and computer applications. They came with photocopied "workbooks" to use as reference. "They're really easy," Alex cooed as she handed me the papers.
This was reassurance I received several times. Manny even helpfully gave me the answer to one of the math questions. At one point, I asked him about passing requirements. "Dude," he uttered, "we have a very flexible grading policy."
Alex and Manny weren't lying. Over that weekend, I recruited five Miami-Dade public school students to do the work for me. The 12-year-old boy who completed the computer applications exam scoffed at stumpers such as "How do you save a document?" The 10-year-old who handled earth science in 30 minutes didn't even need the workbook to know that iceberg was the answer to "An ______ is a huge chunk of ice floating in the ocean."
The English literature exam consisted of three insipid questions concerning a four-page summary of a particular great American novel. Sample: "Who is the author of The Old Man and the Sea?"
An adorable third-grade lass barreled through that test in 12 minutes. Then she returned to watching iCarly reruns.
The next Monday, I turned in the tests to an impressed Manny. "I know these by heart, and it looks like you did very well," he said. On Wednesday, I was informed I had graduated. Last Friday afternoon, exactly one week after first reporting to campus, I handed over the remaining $339 and accepted my diploma from school president Mayankys.
I was also given a transcript covering four years of purported classes, many with no relation to the tests. I received B's in Advanced Spanish, Employability Skills, and "Professional Porfolio [sic]." I earned an A in English Literature, for which I have an 8-year-old to thank.
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When I confessed to being a reporter who recruited children to complete my work, Mayankys protested that if I had been younger than 25, my curriculum would have been "very intensive." Namely, I would have been tested in algebra and geometry — which my transcript shows I passed anyway — and would have had to complete "book reports."
For his part, Manny claimed the criminal accusations were irrelevant because he owned "no stake" in the company and was volunteering his help to his girlfriend Mayankys: "I'm actually on unemployment if you can believe it." Besides, the school is simply offering an option to students who can't pass the FCAT. "We don't educate," he declared matter-of-factly. "That's what colleges are for."
Told of the circumstances of my new diploma, Anderson, president of the accrediting agency, responded Tuesday that InterAmerican's accreditation "expired today... If your facts check out after a complete legal review, we will not renew them."
View the tests — with the kids' responses — and my official transcript at "I Cheated My Way Through High School Last Week." Jacob, Daniel, Ben, Elizabeth, Nick, and Steven contributed to this report.