Not too long ago, Sean Leighty partied every night.
The party sometimes included alcohol and drugs.
But not school.
"I just didn't care if I passed or failed," said Leighty, now an 18-year-old Fort Mill High School senior. "I wasn't worried about it. I was hanging out with friends every night instead of going to school."
Sometimes, he came to school. Most times he didn't.
"When I was there, I was asleep the whole time," he said.
Three years ago, the teen settled into a routine: Party all night and sleep all day.
Until he landed at Fort Mill Academy.
The alternative school anchored atop a slight hill off Banks Street is where local middle and high school students are referred when they have behavior, academic or attendance challenges that otherwise cause them to not fit in traditional schools, Principal Marty Conner said.
"Fort Mill Academy provides an avenue of resources for students to make a turn around," Conner said.
But reaching students who sometimes have little or no desire to be in school can be challenging. The academy overcomes that obstacle by offering computer-based classes coupled with field trips, hands-on learning and mandated class participation in small sized classes as well as community service learning. An online character education course also helps students build social and emotional insight, respect, honesty, perseverance and responsibility while offsetting negativity.
"We have nontraditional students," Conner said. "They have not been successful in a traditional environment, therefore it's necessary to have an environment where nontraditional learning takes place."
Nothing about the school is routine. Monday through Thursday, students meet at 9:30 a.m. to kick off a day of core classes and electives that ends at 4:30 p.m. Fridays are half days and students have several options, including attending two classes, participating in a community service project, club or field trip or listening to speakers' topics that range from career choices to financial planning. Along the way, students learn how to perfect their decision making so they can return to their school.
"Either poor decision making has occurred or students haven't found their niche at their home school," Conner said. "They haven't been able to connect."
That's where the academy comes in. The school, which opened in 2006, helps students connect and find their way. In 2006, the academy served 103 students followed by 101 students in 2007. So far this year, the academy has served 82 students with a current student population of 42, Conner said.
Students remain at the school until they overcome their obstacle, but the idea isn't just to get them ready to go back to their school. Instead, students are encouraged to step up their grades and interpersonal skills, such as self-discipline, while planning their future.
"I know that this school is making life-changing impacts on students' lives," Conner said. "It's not next month, next year. It's immediate. You can see them turn around right away. We are a bridge to connect students to resources that allow them to become successful."
Breaking the cycle
But the academy is not a dumping ground for Fort Mill's "bad kids."
"The misperception a lot of people have about this school is that all the students are bad and come from troubled families and are low social, economic students who are undereducated," Conner said. "That's not the case. They're students who made the wrong choices and didn't connect with the right resources to turn around."
The academy with its outstretched hand is where students find their footing, Fort Mill schools Superintendent Keith Callicutt said.
"It's more than just a school for at-risk students," Callicutt said. "It's for students who may not be successful in a regular school setting for various reasons. We don't want to lose any student."
Nearly three years ago, Leighty's family dynamics changed after his parents separated and divorced, he said.
"I was just thinking about 'what I'm going to do tonight' not, what I'm going to do four years from now," he said.
So Leighty partied nights and slept most days while his mother worked and attended college during the day. He took advantage of the situation, he said, and his mother was none the wiser unless the school called.
But absenteeism landed Leighty at the academy, where he had an epiphany: He had to do better.
"I realized you have to go to school to get a job," he said. "A family member dropped out of school, and I saw how hard it was for him to find a job with a GED."
At the academy, Leighty for the first time found support and encouragement, he said.
"The teachers were always on me about my future and how I should want to do things," he said. "I started going to school, doing my work, paying attention and taking notes."
And he worked on breaking the cycle so much so that in January he returned to Fort Mill High.
"Instead of making Ds and Fs like I did in regular high school, I started making As and Bs. Now, back over here, I have straight As."
School records indicate Leighty has all As with the exception of one B, Conner said.
Being at the academy also made Leighty focus on his future.
"They showed a lot of things about careers and (students') futures," he said about speakers who visited the school. "They showed us people who were successful and people who sold drugs and were out on the street. They either ended up in jail or dead."
Neither option was the life Leighty wanted.
From the academy, the teen also learned to invest in himself by taking field trips to statewide colleges.
"We went to York Tech one day and Midland Technical College," Leighty said of two school-sponsored field trips. "It made me decide that I really wanted to go to college."
And he's done ditching school.
"I'm going to keep my grades up to get into Johnson & Wales," he said. "I want to be a chef."
A wiser Leighty regrets ditching his sophomore year and the repercussions that came with it.
"It's one of the stupidest things I did, not going to school," he said. "I should have graduated last year but because I didn't go (to school), I have to stay in school longer."
And there's one more repercussion, he said.
"Because my GPA from my 10th grade year is low, I could have trouble getting into college," he said.
Yet, Leighty remains encouraged, and he credits the academy for his turn around.
"I didn't want to wake up in the mornings to go (to school), but the alternative school schedule helped me," he said. "I liked the half days on Friday. I liked the one on one with the teachers, and the classes are a lot smaller."
So much so that he didn't want to go back to his home school.
"I wanted to stay, but they didn't have the electives I needed to finish my senior year," he said.
Students have the option to remain at the academy, Conner said.
"Students really can graduate from this school," Conner said. "The only class we don't offer is a foreign language class."
Still, some students elect to stay at the academy because they find their niche, Conner said.
"Some kids fit better here," he said. "We've had some students to stay here a year, year and-a-half. One student stayed for two years and just went back."
During a near 18-month stay, Leighty found self-worth and is now proud of himself. And he's grateful for the school making him realize himself.
"Now, I can see I'm going to have a future," he said.