Alex Lawson's future wasn't looking too bright: He'd quit doing his homework back in seventh grade, hung out with the wrong kids and had some run-ins with police.
The 16-year-old from Oak Bluffs said that by last year one teacher at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School predicted, "You'll be in jail by the time you're 18."
Holly Dunlap's story hardly sounded more promising. At 18 and after some rough times, she supports herself working full-time as a cook at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. "It's hard. It's really hard," she said. "You don't have bills when you live at home. Now, you have to pay for everything."
These two Island teenagers were bound to become just another statistic: high school dropouts. Remarkably, they are both beating the game. They are still in school.
But it's no ordinary school, and the 25 students enrolled there are no ordinary teenagers. They are part of an alternative education program called the Rebecca Amos Institute (RAI), started up three years ago as an offshoot of the regional high school aimed at rescuing kids from the margins.
For some, it was learning disabilities or simply a bad fit with the way of life at the high school. Some couldn't sit at a desk for the 84-minute classes, part of the block scheduling plan introduced six years ago.
For others, the trouble had little to do with academics. There were fights with other kids, fallout from divorced parents, drug or alcohol addiction or homelessness. Inevitably, some also wound up in the juvenile court system on probation.
"There are socio-economic reasons or substance abuse. We all know what's going on on the Island," said Katharine Kavanagh, director of the institute. "But the common thread was it just wasn't working for them."
Regional high school principal Peg Regan said that when she first arrived on the job back in the fall of 1999, "These kids were falling through the cracks."
Putting it more bluntly, she said, "In that first year here, we had four or five seniors in the Edgartown jail. That's where they were graduating from."
Mrs. Regan set out to build these kids a safety net. With some unanticipated educational aid from the state and the backing of the school committee, she hired Ms. Kavanagh to create a setting and a curriculum that would achieve what the regular high school could not.
The key is flexibility. The Rebecca Amos Institute, housed inside a former garden shed next to the faculty parking lot and named after a former slave who settled on the Vineyard, is geared to the needs and schedules of the students, many of whom hold down full or part-time jobs.
"The schedule is driven by individual student needs," said Ms. Kavanagh.
Joseph Berninger, for example, a 17-year-old from West Tisbury, puts in 20 to 30 hours a week at the A&P in Edgartown and comes to the school four days a week between noon and 3 p.m. Miss Dunlap is in school just two days a week from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., clocking in at the hospital from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. most days.
Unlike the high school less than 100 yards to the west, the school functions as an open campus, meaning that students come and go throughout the day.
On a typical day at the RAI, you might find a dozen students in the small building, a few sitting on one of the stuffed couches reading a book, and four boys gathered around a table, keeping up with a lesson in algebra. No class is bigger than 10 students, and some of the teaching is one-to-one.
By most measures, the program is a success. In its first year, seven of the 10 students graduated. Now, enrollment in the program has more than doubled, and all but three have passed the state MCAS exam, required for graduation. More than half have headed off to college.
But those are just numbers, and the teachers and students here will tell you that this place is far more than that. They begin the school year with a five-day retreat on the Cape, followed up by monthly and mandatory community dinners.
"We deal with the whole child, not just the educational part," said Ms. Kavanagh. "We have kids who get sober in here and stay sober. We talk about anything and everything in here."
Real life and the personal problems that come with it are not left at the doorstep. It's all part of the package.
"If we need to shut off class for two hours because life is kind of tough, that's fine," said social studies teacher Chris Greene. "That's why we're here."
The challenge is striking a balance between therapy and academics. And in this setting, it calls for some muscle: Neither Ms. Kavanagh nor Mr. Greene is afraid to flex it.
When kids are late or don't show up for class, they pay the price and lose some of their freedom. "Is this fair," argued one boy who tired to push the freedom too far.
"You screwed up, boy," said Ms. Kavanagh.
A day at the RAI is filled with such banter - kids testing the limits and teachers drawing the line. "When they're not in school, I'm literally at their house. When they're not doing what I want, I know where to find them," said Ms. Kavanagh. "When there's some behavior I don't like, I say ‘Excuse me, is this who you want to be?' They take it from me."
Among the kids, Mr. Greene also has a reputation for being tough. "Organize, organize, get it back together in the right order," he said to one of his students. "I want it in the binder, not the folder. Fix it right now."
As harsh as that sounds, Mr. Greene manages to pull it off gently. His script reads like the barking of a boot camp drill sergeant, but his demeanor and his smile convey a sense of caring.
"It gets stressful in here. It gets tough," he said. "We're a lot about life skills."
But why does this blend of freedom and flexibility seem to help students step off one path and choose a more constructive one?
The teachers say it's because they are holding students accountable for their actions.
"We take away the abiity to blame. When they came in here, there was always the blame: ‘I hated the teacher. The administration had it in for me,'" said Ms. Kavanagh. "We got rid of that so the student sees the reality of the choices they're making."
Mr. Greene wants to instill in his students a sense of self-discipline. It's closer to the real world, he said.
"There are other ways to deal with adversity other than to shut down or expect someone else to fix it. There are other options even if ‘my Dad's a child-beater and Mom's an alcoholic,' " he said.
Working in everyone's favor is the gift of desperation, or as Ms. Kavangh explains it: "I think they see it as a last chance. These students were right on the edge of major failure."
Testimony from the kids proves the point, their voices, in many cases, full of gratitude and praise for what happens in this nondescript steel building.
"If I wasn't here, I would have dropped out, guaranteed," said Mr. Lawson, who balances out his school week by working every morning as an apprentice mechanic at Buddy's Auto Repair in Oak Bluffs.
"It's like a privilege to be in here," said Miss Dunlap. "For me, I came in because I wanted to work. Chris really gets things done. And if [Katharine] has a problem, she comes right at you."
When she graduates, Miss Dunlap wants more education so she can get a job working as a probation officer. "I want to work in the courts," she said.
Over on the couches, a trio of students reflected on why coming to RAI has helped them. Much of their commentary focused on the differences between this place and the regional high school.
"You don't feel like you're cared about over there," said Amanda Murphy, a 15-year-old sophomore from Vineyard Haven. "Here, everyone knows if you've had a bad day. The relationships with the teachers are on a more personal level."
Rose Campbell had dropped out of the high school in her sophomore year, after getting swept up in the drugs and alcohol she described as being prevalent in the school building.
"People would come into class and announce they were high," she said. "They'd smoke weed in the bathroom or bring in water bottles with alcohol in it."
At 18, Miss Campbell has gone through detox and now lives in Vineyard House, the youngest woman in a home for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics.
"I actually do my homework here," she said. "You get to do a lot of projects and take charge."
Bottom line, they like it here. They feel respected. "The teachers are like almost your friends," said Mr. Kontje.
"If there's a problem they'll come and talk to you about it. They want to know your reasons," said Mindy Roussell, 17.
The students give the impression of being battle-tested, whether by hard times at the regional high school or a rough ride on the home front. Either way, the common ground has helped students forge a distinct cameraderie.
"I love it here," said Joe Breninger. "You're with kids who've gone through some of the kind of stuff you have."
That spirit of community lends a certain calm to the place. The three young women all agreed they had suffered through harassment from peers at the regional high school and were relieved to have escaped.
"I came over here and felt welcomed," said Miss Rousell. "Nobody's going to look at you and judge you over here. You can't ever be mean to anybody over here."
Students readily admit that there's a stigma attached to signing up for the alternative education program. "People think it's a retard school, like you can't handle the regular high school," said Miss Murphy, who just lobbied successfully for an individual study program in honors level biology.
"It's not like you're looked down upon," said Marlin Kontje, 17, "but we're seen as weird and strange. No one understands us, and some kids avoid us."
But no one seems to dwell for long on how others are looking at them. Instead, the students at RAI appear content to have found a setting where they can show a first draft to teacher Peggy Isham and hear her say, "This is a great start. I love it."