BRADENTON -- It's the last period of the first session of Manatee Y Technological High's school day, and students are a little antsy as they get ready to attend their daily character and career-building class.
"Here's what it takes to succeed, ladies and gentleman," booms Dean of Admissions Rob LeVine to the group of students gathered in the 13th Av Dream Center gymnasium. "You are going to face obstacles. It's not easy to choose to take two to three buses to get here."
Students sit down and start to listen.
The Manatee Y Technological School opened this past August as a haven for at-risk students, teenagers who have dropped out of school and come back, passed through other alternative schools, endured difficult home situations or worked to overcome poverty and support their families at the same time they are trying to earn a high school diploma.
For some, it's the second chance. For many, it's the last chance.
Here, character and career-building skills are worked into every school day. Administrators take personal belongings such as cell phones to eliminate distractions and students utilize online learning programs on laptops so they can work at their own pace.
Opening the school in August was challenging, Principal Lamar Billups said Friday. There was less than a month to hire teachers, recruit students and prep the Dream Center as a school after the Manatee County School Board approved their contract in late July.
"It was a marathon race, but we got it done," Billups said. "We target at-risk kids, but there is no mold here."
The school of about 175 students still has more than 30 slots available for students who may want to transition from a traditional classroom mid-year. Teachers here are certified in at least one subject, and every classroom is equipped with iPads and laptops, thanks to more than $75,000 raised by YMCA sponsors over the summer.
Billups says he sees the blended-instruction model working. Most students aren't disciplined enough to push through the online programs without the help of teachers, but also need room to work at their own pace.
The junior and senior classes, which can contain students as old as 19 or 20, are pushed harder, Billups said. If they have struggled to pass the FCAT, teachers work to help them obtain the SAT/ACT equivalent score.
It's the desire to help kids that the system may have previously failed that prompted the creation of the school, officials said Friday.
Five years ago, Manatee YMCA CEO Sean Allison said, the YMCA began gang prevention programs and witnessed something upsetting.
"We noticed that in any year between five and seven high school-aged kids weren't in school ... anywhere," Allison said. "A lot of kids had exhausted their options."
When other alternative schools, such as the Richard Milburn Academy, announced they were closing, the Manatee YMCA board and the United Community Center developed a committee to work to provide a place of learning for at-risk children, Allison said.
"It's a risk. It's brand-new," Allison said. "The process is being invented and improved every day."
LeVine, who worked for several years in a downtown Los Angeles juvenile hall, said every kid comes with a set of challenges.
"This isn't at-risk. This is high-risk," LeVine said. "But there is a spirit in this group, because they are fighting to be here."
School officials hope that through mentoring and career-building programs, kids can build futures for themselves.
Instructors discuss life skills such as creating resumes or cover letters, hold mock interviews or invite guest speakers to talk about career paths.
Career Director Mark Weir, also the lead pastor at Community Church, also makes cold calls to local businesses such as Advanced Talent Solutions or Publix about extending job interviews to Manatee Y students. A local WalMart employed several students during the holiday rush.
But the school has a lot of room for improvement, Allison says. The school's application to become a charter school, which would make the school more competitive for grants and extend the length of their contract, was withdrawn by school administrators in September.
"There was such a delay in getting this school started," Allison said. "We bit off more than we could chew."
Allison said school officials are already reworking and improving a charter school application for next year.
On Friday, English teacher Stephen Morton wrote, "What is one thing you would like to change for the better in your life?" for students to respond to in their journals.
Morton reads anonymous journal entries aloud and it leads to discussions about the subject matter, he said, as well as what writing styles are most effective.
"It gets students thinking at the beginning of the day," Morton said. "And it helps me evaluate grammar and how their writing skills are developing."
Three students here have graduated already, earning just a few credits they needed for a diploma. And school officials says 15-20 students are on track to graduate this May.
"It's not about being the best teacher," Morton said. "Sometimes it's about being a role model."
Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.