Mario was watching a film in his high school history class last September when a seizure brought on by a food allergy caused him to collapse.
It was a frightening and embarrassing experience for the 17-year-old Glendale student, made worse by the reaction of his classmates.
"They started staring at me like they were afraid of me," he said. "After that, whenever we watched films they would move their desks away from me and stare at me like it was going to happen again."
He took what he thought was the only avenue of escape, he said, and quit school.
Rick, 19, described himself as a good student until his last semester in the 11th grade. That's when he began cutting class to socialize with friends and his grades started to slip, he said. Within a year he quit school and moved to Arizona where he barely made ends meet with a series of low-paying jobs for seven months before returning to Glendale.
Today, however, Rick and Mario are back in a school, enrolled in an newly established independent study program designed to encourage dropouts, age 16 to 19, to return to Glendale's educational system.
So far, 65 students are enrolled in the program. Officials say its $83,000 cost, including purchase of computers, has already paid for itself in increased state reimbursement based on enrollment figures.
"It's a good class, a real good class because people like me can get a diploma without any hassles," said Rick, who is about two months shy of fulfilling his graduation requirements. "I've been out of school. I know what it's like without an education."
The independent study program is taught at Allan Daily Continuation School, an alternative high school in Glendale that offers students shorter school days and a slower pace of learning than traditional high school classes. But unlike students attending Daily's structured classroom program, pupils enrolled in the individualized study plan require a more flexible educational program, said instructor Tom Edwards.
"These kids are at the end of the line and this is the last step before they drop out," he said. "Every kid has a tough personal life."
Edwards cited a 16-year-old in his class who dropped out of regular high school last year so he could care for his parents--both of whom were stricken with cancer.
"His father died in December and his mother is going to die in a few months," Edwards said. "This program offers an opportunity for him to keep his education alive while he has these traumatic home experiences."
Newly enrolled students are given tests to determine their academic capabilities. Then Edwards and educational assistant Pierre Oliver, who make up the program's staff, tailor an individualized study plan for each student.
"They come in, we look at their transcripts and evaluate what they've done and what they need to do to graduate," said Edwards.
Students are then required to complete a minimum of 17 hours of course work weekly, with at least one hour spent inside the classroom. To help verify that they are completing their work, Edwards assigns problem sets in each subject that must be completed by the pupil and handed in. After finishing a prescribed amount of work, the student is tested.
"The bottom line is how many tests they take and how well they do on the tests," Edwards said. "That's how we keep track of whether they're keeping accurate accounts or not."
"It teaches you responsibility because you have to do the work," said Jason, 15, who dropped out of school last semester and signed up for Edwards' class in January. "I never used to do homework, but now I've gotten used to it."
Edwards admits that some students in the program are "so burnt out" that they are nearly impossible to help, while many others, like 17-year-old Karla, are "highly motivated and bright students" who are eager to learn.
Karla said she dropped out of regular high school last year because of family troubles.
"Problems at home left me drained and confused and I couldn't study," she said.
Now, with the problem resolved, Karla, who spends two to three hours in class every day, said she wants to earn enough credits to return to regular high school next year.
After graduation, she said, she plans to attend college.
"I'm determined to make it," she said. "I just hope life doesn't throw me any more curves."
Ted Tiffany, principal at Daily, said another of the program's objectives is to prepare younger students for a return to a structured classroom environment, whether at his school or a regular high school.
"We try to encourage them to go back to regular school . . . to get them back into the mainstream," he said.
The independent study program is part of a wider attempt to reduce the dropout rate and increase attendance, said Gary J. Hess, Glendale's director of student services.
For example, district officials now make personal contact with the dropout and his parents. In the past, the district would just send a letter home informing parents that their child was no longer attending school, Hess said.