Some had a hard time waking at 6 a.m. to catch the bus. Others found a regular high school setting too distracting, and a few struggled to gain their teachers' attention in crowded classrooms.

No matter what brought them to the Principals' Academy, a special program in Shoreham-Wading River High School that focuses on at-risk kids, the students say it has all they need to graduate: small classes, one-on-one instruction and an afternoon start time.

Chelsea Tressler, 17, sitting in a forensics class one afternoon last month, said she wasn't able to concentrate in a regular classroom setting. With so many students raising their hands at once, she said, "you don't even get to ask your own questions."

Tressler's mother, Kathy, said the academy saved her daughter, both scholastically and emotionally.

"It's given her the ability to graduate and be able to focus on her future," she said, adding that her daughter used to dread class. "When you don't want to go to school, that's a problem."

The academy, serving 14 students this academic year, has classes Monday through Thursday for juniors and seniors, starting at 2:15 p.m. and ending three hours later. The program, which started Sept. 29, costs $60,000 for educators, transportation, supplies and materials, administrators say.

Some of the current students previously had dropped out of school. One even contacted the district himself asking to enroll in the program, having heard about it through friends who were selected to participate.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Roberta Gerold, head of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association and superintendent of the Middle Country school district, said administrators throughout the region know it's critical to target students who otherwise might not make it to graduation.

Tailored to students

Several districts, including her own, have similar programs, and each is tailored to its own students' needs, which change through the years. Other systems that target at-risk children include Bellmore-Merrick, Deer Park, Lindenhurst, North Babylon and Three Village.

While it's important to identify those most in need, Gerold said, it also is crucial that educators not predetermine a student's academic path.

"You don't want to say in ninth grade, 'You're never going to make it,' or you could fall back in a tracking mechanism" that may consign at-risk students to a string of lower-level classes, she said.

Administrators in Shoreham-Wading River contacted parents and students last summer to see if they wanted to participate.

"At first, there may have been a little bit of apprehension, because it was something new," Principal Dan Holtzman said. "But after each conversation we had with parents and students, they realized it was the right pathway for them."

Justin Arini, a high school guidance counselor who was integral in establishing the program, said students are more willing to give the academy a try when they consider the alternatives: not being able to graduate, attending high school for a fifth year or having to take courses with ninth-graders.

"All of a sudden, what might have been apprehension turns around," Arini said.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

David Feller, immediate past president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, said creating such a program can seem daunting, but it's far better than the alternative -- having a student drop out.

"Sometimes kids need to feel they have a fresh start," said Feller, superintendent of the North Merrick district, which serves students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Mike Manesis, 17, said he couldn't wake up on time for school and would sometimes miss first period. His father, Andy, 51, said his son's attention deficit disorder makes a morning routine difficult.

"He really has a tough time staying on task, starting projects, getting going," his father said. "I'm just glad that Shoreham-Wading River put this together for the kids that do need it."

Holtzman considers the program a success, but said it took time for students and educators to adjust.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Teachers had to learn to be more flexible, he said, and "to let things go." For example, in a typical classroom setting, a teacher likely would reprimand a student for coarse language, but in the academy the approach is more forgiving.

'A little freer'

What's most important, Holtzman said, is getting the students to attend and participate.

"If that means letting them be a little freer with how they are engaging in discussion, I would take that over their not being engaged," he said.

Some students may stay in the program for the full academic year. Others, including Peter Pisciotto, 17, plan to transition back to a regular class schedule. Pisciotto praises the Principals' Academy, saying the class is like a family.

"There's no kid who sits in the back and no one hears from him all year," Pisciotto said. With such a small group, "things don't go unnoticed. So much success is thrown at me here. It's a good feeling."

The students' attendance rates are up, and those in the academy setting are more receptive to teachers trying to help them with a path forward, Holtzman said.

A couple of them graduated high school at the end of January; they had enough credits to earn a diploma with only a half-year's participation. Others are working on applications for Suffolk County Community College or are planning to join the military.

The district, which serves 823 students and has a dropout rate of less than 1 percent, plans to continue the program next year, Holtzman said.