MESA, Ariz. — Dax LeDuc, 18, thought that Westwood High School had little to offer him last year, so he walked out eight credits shy of earning a diploma.
But his plan to become a fashion designer did not work out the way he expected. Plus, his job at a shopping-mall photo studio did not pay enough to cover life's basics, let alone the training and materials he needed to launch his career.
So LeDuc is back in high school. But this year he is in a new Mesa Public Schools program that fits his goal of earning credits fast so he can graduate and work toward his dream.
He and 34 other students are in what the district terms the Flex Program at East Valley Academy. The program allows students to select the days and hours that they attend school, including Saturdays and evening hours.
Students must attend a minimum of 20 hours a week, but there is no limit to the amount of time they can spend taking classes.
Students must still meet the requirements of the new Arizona Common Core Standards and pass the AIMS test. But they can choose among classes offered both on desktop computers or in more traditional classrooms that feature textbooks, lectures and discussion.
LeDuc has been at the six-days-a-week school since it opened last month. He completed an online Algebra I class in the first six days of the school year and plans to have his diploma and be enrolled in Mesa Community College by January.
"Once you get in front of the computer, the time just flies," LeDuc said. "Ten hours a day goes by just like that."
Principal Timothy Keilty, who runs both the Flex Program and a more traditional credit-recovery high school at East Valley Academy, said LeDuc is typical of the kind of student the district is trying to reach through the new program.
"They have left high school and then come back after realizing it was harder out there than they thought it would be be," Keilty said. "Some are parents and some help support their families. They have realized that they are not going to make it working in fast food and making minimum wage."
One student this year, for instance, helps support his parents by managing a McDonald's restaurant at night, he said. That student attends the Flex Program from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. six days a week, then goes to his job.
"This type of student is not going to be awake before 8 a.m. for traditional high school," he said.
East Valley Academy, which moved into part of the district's former Powell Junior High School last year, also has about 225 students enrolled in "credit recovery" classes, which have more traditional class schedules and hours. Keilty said his goal is to eventually have 150 students enrolled at any one time in the Flex Program.
District research shows there are plenty of students to fill the spots. Last year, 956 students dropped out of schools in the Mesa district, and Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert and Tempe lost a combined 2,068 students.
In addition, a few dropouts from other parts of the Valley are finding their way to the school, Keilty said.
Christina Whiteaker, 18, was earning A's and B's at Tonopah Valley High School in the far West Valley last year until she dropped out to have a baby.
She, her 9-month-old daughter and the child's father now live in Mesa, where Whiteaker has enrolled in the flexible high school. She hopes to have her diploma by spring.
Whiteaker, who hopes to one day enroll in a college program for dental assistants, said she would not be back in school if it were not for the flexible program. She attends Monday through Friday from 1 to 5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Child care is available at the school on weekday afternoons.
"One of the best things is that I can finish my homework here, while I am at school," she said.
In addition to wanting to help dropouts earn Mesa schools diplomas, district officials hope the flexible high school will boost its enrollment. Mesa has lost more than 9,000 students in the past decade and about 700 students in the past year.
The district hopes alternative schools, like the flexible high school, will help it compete with charter schools that offer similar programs.
Superintendent Michael Cowan said he and his staff selected Keilty, who has been East Valley Academy's principal for four years, to develop and run the flexible school because he "is thoughtful and thinks outside the box to help students to be successful. Those are necessary attributes to help the program to thrive."
A model that he looked to is the USA Hybrid High School in Los Angeles, which opened last year. The flexible-schedule school, developed by the University of Southern California, is open 12 hours a day, seven days a week. It features a combination of online and discussion-style classes.
The marketing program for Mesa's Flexible Program is not yet in full swing, said district spokeswoman Helen Hollands.
So far, her staff has developed color brochures that aim to appeal to teenagers and young adults with statistics about the earning power of high-school diplomas and statements like "I will succeed." She said she hopes to take the campaign to larger spaces, like bus benches in west Mesa.
Keilty noted that not just any student can enroll in the school. First, they must have dropped out and need to recover credits to graduate. Second, they have to be younger than 21. Third, they need to prove to Keilty that they have the motivation and self-discipline to stick with a flexible program.
"This is not a school for students with discipline problems — we are not a behavior school," he said. "They have to take responsibility for their own learning."