Randy Thompson says he wants to be a welder someday, and he already looks like he could fit in with a bridge-building or pipeline crew.
He has an impressive display of tattoos on his muscular arms. His face is framed by a neatly trimmed but full beard.
No wonder he didn't want to go back to middle school.
"It felt awkward because of all the little kids," he said.
Thompson, who turned 17 this week, is one of 51 students at the Hernando County School District's new Discovery Academy, which serves middle school students who are at least two years older than their academic peers.
They fell behind for a variety of reasons, said Latressa Jones, principal of Discovery and the recently relocated Endeavor Academy for high school students who have been removed from regular schools for disciplinary reasons; starting this year, both programs are housed — on separate floors — in a wing at Central High School.
Some Discovery students, including Thompson, were on track during elementary school, but checked out once they reached sixth grade, Jones said.
Others progressed on schedule in middle school, but already had been retained at least twice in elementary school. Still others have learning disabilities — often in combination with transient parents or otherwise unstable home lives — that have made every school year a struggle.
Their common ground is that they all have fallen far behind — and fallen into one of the highest-risk populations for dropping out. And they all hope to reduce that risk at Discovery, where they can catch up academically in the company of students their age.
"Our goal as a district was to create a light at the end of the tunnel," Jones said. "Our goal is to get people out of a hole."
Such programs have been used by some districts as dumping grounds for unwanted students, said Brianna Kennedy-Lewis, an assistant professor of education at the University Florida who has extensively studied alternative education. But the idea behind them is valid, Kennedy-Lewis said. Requiring students to return "to the same classroom, and be exposed to the same material they did not master the first time around, is not helpful," she said.
"Any program that can give them a safe space where they can get back on track and feel more connected to the educators and the school in general is a positive thing."
That's what the students say they have at Discovery. Because all seven periods of the day are devoted to core subjects — including some, such as Algebra 1, that fulfill high school and middle school requirements — students can pick up missed credits while progressing through middle school and into high school.
"There's a good portion of the kids who will leave here and have enough credits to be considered sophomores (in high school)," said teacher Joe Vitalo.
Vitalo, who divides his day between Discovery and Endeavor, spent a morning last week in the school cafeteria, which doubled as a classroom for students who had their laptops open to a credit-recovery program called Edgenuity.
Miguel Santiago, 15, who is zoned for Parrott Middle School, is retaking a seventh-grade math class he failed last year. Last week's lesson was on predicting probability with spinners, dice or coin tosses.
From one corner of the screen, an instructor told Santiago that "simulation can be really useful when gathering data or calculating probably can be very difficult."
Among the problems that then appeared beneath's the teacher's image was one requiring Santiago to predict the results of a true-false test with a coin toss.
The answer turned out to be three over 10.
"Can you reduce it?" Vitalo asked, looking over Santiago's shoulder.
"No," Santiago answered.
"It's a prime number."
"Good," Vitalo said.
Teacher Al Vermeire started the lessons in his eighth-grade U.S. history class even before taking attendance, directing students to a page in their textbooks about the staple crops of colonial North America. List these, Vermeire told the class, and use them in a sentence.
"Oatmeal is one of the products of a staple crop," one student said when he was called on to read his sentence aloud.
"Bingo," Vermeire said.
Thompson's social studies class is world history, which earns him credit for high school. So do his math and journalism classes, which he is confident he can handle comfortably.
"I actually did well in school until I got to middle school," he said. Unlike some of his classmates, he said, he has a stable and supportive family — and only himself to blame for falling behind. "I started screwing around, not caring," he said of his years at Parrott Middle. He realized the fix he was in after three years, and during a fourth year at Parrott got serious enough about his studies to be named Turnaround Student of the Year, he said.
But if he had returned to Parrott, he not only would have had to endure the looks of much younger students, but also could not have earned enough credits to start high school as a sophomore, which he is now on track to do. He hopes to attend Central and has particular interest in the school's new welding program.
Yes, there might be some stigma to attending Discovery rather than a zoned school, he said, and "a couple" of kids have made comments about it.
"But I can ignore it," he said, "because I know I'm going to graduate and get a good job."
Contact Dan DeWitt at email@example.com; follow @ddewitttimes.