When Merrianne Dyer first became superintendent of Gainesville City Schools, one particular issue attracted her attention: the number of freshmen repeating their ninth-grade year at Gainesville High School.
"There were a number of things we could start to do with them in elementary and middle school to prevent them from becoming encore ninth-graders, but at the same time, we had them now," she said.
"We started looking at what wasn't working for them. Not many of them were connected to sports or extracurriculars. That connection that gets kids involved, that makes them bond with their school, wasn't there."
Dyer said these students weren't doing well, which put them in a cycle of defeat.
The solution was to look at how high school could be adapted to meet their needs instead of vice versa, with flexible scheduling and more online programs than a structured school day.
"We researched other schools that used blended learning, were self-paced and also had alternate schedules where students could come in and were more customized to what their needs were," Dyer said. "We found out how those schools operated and then we looked at the number of credits ... to ask the board if we could set up the Wood's Mill program with 23 units to graduate."
And in January 2010, Wood's Mill High School was born.
When it first started, the school had 40 students and it was still housed under Gainesville High's roof. In August 2010, the school opened for the first time with seniors. Twenty-five graduated from that first class.
"Right before they walked across the stage, I was out in the hall with them and I said, ‘I want a show of hands of every one of you that would not have walked across the stage had it not been for Wood's Mill.' And every hand rose," said Sheryl Williams, one of two school co-directors.
In August, the school moved to its location at Wood's Mill Academy, 715 Woods Mill Road. This year, the school has a senior class of 26. Most students come onto campus to get help with their online classes, but others choose to work primarily at home.
Despite its early graduation rate success, those numbers don't mean much for Adequate Yearly Progress criteria. Dyer said when Wood's Mill was still in the planning stages, the school board was told it would likely never make AYP because of the graduation requirement.
"If the expectation that, this year, 85 percent of the students would finish in four years, if we had 200 students, 170 of them would have to finish in that amount of time," Dyer said. "Just by the nature of the type of school Wood's Mill is, it's not a school kids enroll in ninth grade and start and get through. It's a school that students come to after they've been at the traditional high school."
It was a choice the school board struggled with.
"We were faced with the decision, ‘OK, if we set up a high school that's not going to make AYP, it can make our whole school district not make AYP,'" she said. "The alternative is they weren't going to graduate. So we decided if it's a choice between what the students need and getting them the diploma and getting them out, or us making AYP under a flawed AYP system, then we needed to do what we needed to do and get them to graduate."
These are the students who might not otherwise have been reached, like senior Cherika Johnson, 19.
"I used to attend Gainesville High and then due to pregnancy at 17, I got discouraged to the point where I was like, ‘I just can't go back to the traditional setting.' It wasn't for me. I needed something self-paced," Johnson said.
"Fliers were going around about Wood's Mill being a nontraditional high school, and this was something I wanted, being a teen mom and wanting to go back to school because I'd dropped out."
She said the online classes and ability to go home for her daughter if she needed it were exactly what she needed, though this type of education is not without its challenges.
Johnson said sometimes it's hard having everything up to her; there is no one telling her she has to attend class or complete something by a certain deadline. But it's worth it.
"I want to get my diploma and I'm about to start a dual-enrollment program in December," she said. "It's like killing two birds with one stone."
Williams said about 20 percent of Wood's Mill students had dropped out and came back when they heard about the school.
"One of the main things we found with our school is what's preventing kids from graduating is not their intelligence, it's issues that life throws at them. So when we identify those, we try to help find what social services can help them," she said.
Students must apply to Wood's Mill High, preferably after they have tried at least one year in the traditional high school setting. Dyer said school officials want to make sure students are making a mature, informed decision to transfer.
"Our students pretty much self-select to come here," Williams said. "There's students that just have not been successful in a traditional high school setting, don't like sitting in a classroom, have issues or problems in their life, so it's a totally different approach to learning."
She said the important thing to her is that even though there are students in the building who are there for disciplinary reasons, they are not part of the high school.
Hers are the ones who are getting another go around.
"We get this, ‘Everybody beats around the bush but at the end of the day it boils down to us being this alternative school for kids with bad behavior.' I want everyone to know we are not a reject school," Johnson said. "We are giving everyone a second chance, a different chance, at education our way."