LARGO — Alone on stage at the Largo Cultural Center on Wednesday night, the seniors in Mavericks High School's first graduating class sat in a row. All three of them.
The 18-year-olds walked across the stage in turn and received their diplomas.
Branden Bailey, who is joining the Coast Guard. Jacques da Fonseca, who plans on enlisting in the Air Force. And Ariel Stanley, who will start classes at St. Petersburg College in January.
They are proof, said school principal Rick Wolfe, that the Mavericks charter program, with all of its unusual methods and educational philosophies, works.
Opened in August in a renovated supermarket in Largo, the school did not launch without some skepticism. The promise from Mark Thimmig, the chief executive of the Mavericks High School chain, was that the school's model would help cut Pinellas County's 26 percent dropout rate.
School boards in Hernando and Broward counties had turned down Mavericks charter applications. But Pinellas officials decided to take a chance.
The recent graduates are glad they did.
Bailey, da Fonseca and Stanley, who did not fit in well at the structured and segmented environments at their previous high schools, said they found Mavericks an alternative that worked well for them — and helped them graduate.
Stanley, who went to Osceola High School before transferring to Mavericks this year, said she only had one English class and one economics class to finish before she had enough credits to graduate. She did not want to wait until June, filling her time with classes like tennis or pottery.
"I was so over the high school experience," Stanley said. "I was ready to get on with my life. I wanted to get stuff done and see what else life brings me."
A look inside a Mavericks classroom reveals just how different the school really is.
James Cardwell, a Teach for America-trained English instructor, presides over his classroom with his iPhone in hand.
It's his way to communicate with his students outside the classroom. One of them was not going to show up that day — but Cardwell knew that. She had sent him a text message: "Mr. C, I'm not coming to class today. My sister was in a car accident."
"If they don't come to school, they need to text me or call me," Cardwell said.
And in Cardwell's classroom, it's better to text him first — or else he will call them, and they have five minutes to call back.
"If they don't, I'll do a drive-by," he said.
By that, he meant he would stop by their houses and talk to their parents.
Courses are done on computers, for the most part. And students from different grade levels often share the same classroom, each working independently.
Modules are set up, much like the state's successful Florida Virtual School online program. Students read through the material, take quizzes after each chapter, and, finally, write a paper and take a final exam to finish the class. All this can be done at the students' own pace. If the typical four-hour day isn't enough time, students can stay longer.
If the computer instruction isn't sufficient for students to master the material, teachers like Cardwell step in to offer full-length lessons.
And for some students who may not have needed the individualized attention, the self-set pace that Mavericks offers is a godsend.
Amber Avidon, 17, who went to Osceola High School until this year, was a hard worker. She took the toughest Advanced Placement classes and had her eye on college. But when her school switched to a seven-class schedule, the work just became too much to keep up with.
"I had to take days off because I would worry myself sick," Avidon said.
But when she transferred to Mavericks, things changed.
"You know how you learn best," Avidon said. "You know yourself better than the school system."
Avidon said since she has been able to prepare for classes on her own time, she feels prepared to take the AP English and psychology exams next semester.
Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or firstname.lastname@example.org.