PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — A lot has happened in the 12 years since Jeffrey “J.T.” Noble graduated high school.
He got a job, got married, had a child, bought a house.
The Palm Beach Gardens private school that Noble graduated from in 2001 closed.
And somewhere along the way, all official records that Noble ever graduated vanished.
It didn't seem like that big of a deal that he'd lost track of his diploma, Noble said, sitting at the kitchen table recently in his new Palm Beach Gardens home.
But then he got a call last month from his new employer and discovered one of the pitfalls of the largely unregulated, 317,000-student private school industry in Florida.
When a private school shuts down, there's no way for the state to enforce a requirement that the school's records be kept. And without such a safeguard, some student records could end up in a long-forgotten storage space or in a landfill — leaving hundreds of students desperately searching each year.
“On the Friday before I was supposed to start my new job, I got a call,” Noble said. “The background company said it was having trouble finding proof of my high school education.”
Noble, 30, had never really needed to provide proof before; he went to work for an automotive company right out of high school, and neither that company nor any subsequent one he worked for had requested a copy of his transcripts or diploma.
Noble had heard that his school — The Edison Russell School in Palm Beach Gardens — had shut down years ago. He set out trying to find people who used to run the school and tracing what might have happened to his records.
‘It really is a sad situation'
As of last school year, private school students made up more than 10 percent of all the students in Palm Beach County, with 20,117 students in the county attending 98 private schools, according to state data.
Private schools are not licensed, approved or regulated by the Florida Department of Education. Private schools are asked to register and answer a yearly survey on enrollment, teachers and other information, but there's no legal way to enforce that, said Tiffany Cowie, a state Education Department spokeswoman.
When they close, private schools are required by law to notify the education department and to hand over all permanent student records to either the local school district or to a private school system or association of which the school is a member.
But those steps aren't always followed.
The education department lists eight private schools that have closed in Palm Beach County since 2005, but is missing others — such as the Maranatha Christian Academy in Palm Beach Gardens that closed in 2009 and Summit Private School in Boca Raton, which closed in 2011.
The Palm Beach County School District keeps the records of 11 closed private schools, most of which are different from the list the state keeps, and seven of which closed in the 1970s and ‘80s. It's unclear how complete the records are; a list given to the district notes that one school, GCR Private School, which closed in 2009, gave the school district records for only two students.
Cowie said the state asks closing private schools to turn over their records “so students aren't left high and dry.” But, “because we aren't legally over these private schools, there's no way we can go track them down and force them to give this to the school district.” So instead, the state fields multiple calls or emails each week from former private school students searching for their records.
“A ton of kids are having to deal with this,” Cowie said. “It really is a sad situation for that many kids.”
‘Just decided to pack it in'
A charter school, Bright Futures Academy, now holds classes where Noble once attended Edison Russell.
Administrators there don't remember the private school; the charter school arrived years after the private school closed down.
The Edison Russell School started in North Palm Beach in 1977 as a diagnostic tutoring center called The Edison Russell Center for Learning. Parents later pressed the founder, Robert Ballagh, to turn it into a school.
In 1984, the school moved to a building at 10350 Riverside Dr. in Palm Beach Gardens, where Noble later attended high school.
The summer before Noble's senior year, records show that a Philip Rosen bought the Riverside Drive building. Rosen took over Edison Russell and the Ballaghs retired.
Phyllis Noble, J.T. Noble's mother, said she remembers Rosen having good credentials but not being as much of a people person as the Ballaghs were.
She remembers Rosen introducing J.T. during her son's high school graduation in 2001. That year, the school had a graduating class of four.
“He said, ‘This is J.T., and now I know what the J.T. stands for,'” Phyllis Noble recalled. “But then he gave the wrong name. J.T. stands for Jeffrey Thomas. But he said some other name. That kind of summed it up for me.”
Shortly after J.T. Noble graduated, the school's name was changed to Palm Beach Preparatory School.
In 2005, according to state records, Palm Beach Preparatory School closed.
“He closed abruptly,” said Robin Beers, whose son attended the school. She said the school closed the summer before her son's senior year, and he ended up going to Palm Beach Gardens High.
“Philip Rosen, he was getting older and his school. the attendance was getting smaller. He just decided to pack it in,” said Tim Moore, co-founder of Keating-Moore Construction, which now owns the building.
Moore said that after Rosen closed the school, DiVosta Corp., the homebuilder, rented the space for about a year and a half. Then Keating-Moore bought the building in late 2007.
Shortly after, Keating-Moore rented 10350 Riverside Dr. to Bright Futures Academy to use as one of its campuses. Moore said he never saw any student records from Edison Russell or Palm Beach Preparatory School.
Attempts to reach Rosen were unsuccessful. Corporate records list a P.O. Box for him in Tybee Island, Ga.
Robert Ballagh died last May at age 76. His wife, Maureen, when contacted by phone, confirmed that Noble attended Edison Russell but refused to answer any other questions.
What happened to the school's records is a mystery.
At times during his records search, Noble said there would be “glimmers of hope,” only to later watch the leads fizzle out.
For instance, he recounted how his wife called the education department and was told that it does keep a database of closed private schools and that the state had a record of Edison Russell. But then the state contact checked further and said all documents from the school were “officially lost.”
All Noble has left to offer as proof is his word and several pictures of him in a maroon cap and gown, holding what appears to be his high school diploma. One picture shows him posed with his family; another shows him and three other graduates standing next to a person he and others have identified as Rosen.
Noble said his new employer, whom he has asked not be named in the story, has been understanding as Noble searches for records of his high school diploma. But he's resigned himself to the idea that he may have to get his GED.
“His only recourse is to take the GED and pass it,” said Cowie, “or find someone that has those records and let them pull them out.”
‘A layer of protection'
Palm Beach County human resource professionals say Noble's story is a unique one.
“Something like this has never come up, but it's not inconceivable,” said Eric Gordon, the immediate past president of the Human Resources Association of Palm Beach County. “Schools close, especially private schools.”
Gordon said companies look for a host of qualifications when interviewing candidates, including job experience and education.
“To me, it's more important what you've done in the last 12 years than what you did in school 12 years ago,” Gordon said, saying he'd probably give someone in this situation a chance. But, he added, if an employer were to find out later that an employee lied about his or her education or experiences, that would be grounds for termination.
Myra McGovern, spokeswoman for Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Independent Schools, said private school closure is rare.
She stressed that private schools are regulated by the state for health and safety regulations, adding that many private schools are accredited, meaning their curriculum and financials are regularly reviewed by an outside organization. She added that many private schools have boards of trustees to oversee the school's actions.
“I would say that parents should always look for schools that are accredited by a reputable accrediting body or are in the process of becoming accredited,” McGovern said. “It adds a layer of protection for families and is an outside marker of quality.”
McGovern said she's seen some instances where a closing school will designate another nearby school to keep its records. The closing school then notifies its alumni of where the records will be kept.
McGovern added that parents shouldn't be deterred from going to a private school, saying private schools offer parents choices on the type of instruction their child gets and are sometimes an advantage in the college admissions process.
Noble still remembers his school's mascot — the bobcat — and his sophomore-year 10-day school trip to Europe. More than a decade later, he remembers walking the light and dark brown halls of the school and seeing the wall that displayed photos of every student that had ever graduated from his little school.
The memories seem almost surreal as he sits at his kitchen table, looking at his 14-month-old son, Crosby, as his wife, Anne, sifts through notes from her call with the education department.
“We're going to make sure we keep every single record Crosby has,” Anne says with a defeated laugh.
Distributed by MCT Information Services