WESLEY CHAPEL — Robert Picard realized he "wasn't really into the whole aspect of high school" soon after entering ninth grade at Wiregrass Ranch High School.
His friends went to different schools. The social scene didn't intrigue him.
Picard, 17, wanted something different — something he could do on his own terms.
He discovered Pasco eSchool, which opened in August 2009. The courses, taught by local teachers, carried the same curriculum and standards as a bricks-and-mortar high school.
But he could take them from the comfort of his own home, at his own pace. And he could wake up at noon instead of having to show up for classes by 7:30 a.m.
All it took was self-discipline to get the work done.
Two years later — and one year early — Picard is one of four students in the eSchool's first graduating class.
He and Katie DePerno are the school's two honors graduates, based on grade-point average. The other two are Houston Irwin and Vanessa Royster.
They will graduate along with the Mitchell High School Class of 2011 at 6 tonight at the Tampa Convention Center.
Picard acknowledged it wasn't always easy to stay focused when not heading to a classroom daily.
"There was the aspect of having to do it on time, having to manage yourself," he said. "I'd go through phases — two weeks ahead, four weeks behind. … It's just a matter of motivation."
Teachers would call and ask what's going on if you fall off the course tracking chart, which shows generally where a student should be on any given week.
But lacking regular face time with the instructors, Picard said, they could seem like distant voices rather than a looming presence. Completion depended heavily on a student's ability to overlook the refrigerator in the next room, or the clear blue sky outside and get the work done.
"You're always tempted. It's easy to get distracted," said DePerno, 18. "As long as you stay focused, it's not that bad."
DePerno enrolled in eSchool her senior year, after spending her junior year at Ridgewood High. She decided to do so because she had moved around a lot, taking Florida Virtual School courses as a sophomore, and wanted to get back to the online environment.
Taking courses via the Internet, and being responsible for the outcomes, prepares you for college or work, where you have to be more independent, she said. Picard, who often carried his laptop to book stores to do his work, said he heard talk that some students don't complete their own work in online classes, where nobody is watching over you.
But cheating carries its own price, he said, including not being able to meet the expectations of college professors.
"Online school isn't for everybody," DePerno said.
One thing many students might miss is the "high school experience" — no dances, no clubs, no Friday night lights.
Picard tried to start a student council for eSchool, but found he didn't have time to actually participate. He had no close relationships with his teachers, and found class collaborations difficult because he rarely was on the same page as his classmates.
Still, he said, eSchool satisfied his high school needs.
DePerno thought long and hard about missing prom and not having activities. In the end, though, "I was just more focused on finishing high school. That stuff just didn't matter to me."
Now they're both on their way to new experiences.
DePerno plans to move to Boston, where her next step is still undecided. Picard has been accepted to the University of North Florida, where he wants to study mechanical engineering.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.