SEMINOLE HEIGHTS — It starts with a plan and ends with a high school graduation.
No drama. No distractions. Just aim at a diploma.
Seminole Heights Charter High School, at the corner of Florida Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, is set to open Aug. 24. Administrators are seeking up to 400 students, ages 16 through 21, who need a nontraditional approach.
Students start with an individual graduation plan, said principal Bobby Smith, who came from Benito Middle School, where he oversaw 1,800 students. Smith grew up in Sulphur Springs and hopes to make a difference with those students he saw losing their way.
"Where are we at on your plan?" Smith said to Varian Fipps, who enrolled at the school recently. "You'll hear me say that a lot. Show me your dashboard."
Smith explained to Fipps that a "dashboard" shows up when a student logs onto one of the 25 new computers in each of the six classrooms. Students use computers to complete coursework at their own pace with help from teachers who circulate through the room. Students can see their GPA, attendance and progress toward a diploma. Teachers and administrators can leave motivating notes to students. Graduation comes after a student completes the credits he or she needs.
Fipps of Belmont Heights rode his bike 4 miles to the school. He wants to get a degree and hopes one day to be a computer game designer.
Smith told Fipps the school offers extra attention for students who work at their own pace, without the distractions of extracurricular activities or other fillers. Sessions are in four-hour blocks — morning, afternoon or evening — to accommodate students who have jobs or children.
Fipps, an 11th-grader, plans to take morning and afternoon classes to finish faster, unless he gets a job. The school will have a job center to help students get hired.
The goal is to catch high schoolers at risk of dropping out, including those with poor attendance who have changed schools often or those with low grades and FCAT scores. But the school is open to anyone 16 to 21 in Hillsborough County.
Smith said he recently enrolled a student who feared bullying at a public school.
The school also offers honors courses. Motivated students can take two blocks of classes per day. A full-time student services specialist will help with health concerns, child care needs or counseling. Officials will dole out city bus passes to those who need transportation.
"We want you to leave ready to enroll in college," said James Simmons, chairman of the school's board, which operates under the umbrella of Accelerated Learning Solutions, based in Fort Lauderdale. Simmons was president of the Pinellas County Urban League for 27 years before retiring in 2004. This year 5,600 students who started high school four years ago did not graduate in Hillsborough, according to his research.
Fipps, 18, was one of them. He had been suspended more times than he could count for fighting, and a Chamberlain High School counselor told him last year that he should try for his GED.
"They say I got a bad temper," he told Simmons recently in a trailer behind the charter school, while workers set up desks in classrooms. "My dad wants me to go to the Army."
Simmons told him that's not a bad idea. Despite Fipps' troubled background, Simmons told the teen it was clear he had not given up on himself.
"I came up in the housing projects," Simmons told him. "My mom was a domestic and raised me and my sister after my dad was killed when I was 7 months old. I went into the Air Force because I could get the GI bill and go to college. I didn't want to wash somebody's windows all my life. I wanted something better.
"You can do the exact same thing," he told Fipps.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3431.