For some, high school doesn't fit neatly into a four-year window.
Family instability, homelessness or academic and social struggles can derail the dreams of graduating on time and lengthen the odds of graduating at all.
The Anoka-Hennepin School District is improving the chances for these fifth- and sixth-year students. Part of the push includes helping them pick up some free college credits and plan for a future career along the way.
Three years ago, Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest district, separated its Crossroads Alternative High School into two programs: one for 14- to 17-year-olds and a "seniors only campus" for those 18 to 21. The idea was to minimize some of the social drama that can accompany the younger teens and treat the older group like adults with a "laser focus on college and career preparation." The number of graduates nearly tripled, from 38 in 2012 to 112 in 2014.
It corresponds with improvement in the district's dropout rate, now at 3 percent compared with 8 percent in 2003.
Starting in the fall, the program for 18- to 21-year-olds will move from a Champlin strip mall into eight classrooms on the Anoka Technical College campus. The goal is to create a more seamless transition between high school and college or trade school. It will also make it easier for students to take advantage of the state's postsecondary enrollment options, which allow high schoolers to enroll in college classes for free.
"College seems so bizarre and out of reach to them. It doesn't seem so out of reach if that is where you go already," Crossroads Principal Nancy Chave said.
And these young adults, who once thought a high school diploma was a long shot, are now working toward careers as graphic designers, engineers, marines, teachers and clergy. It's also about taking away some of the stigma attached to enrolling in alternative high school.
"You are going to school with your peers. We are embedded in the college. No one knows the difference," Chave said.
Next fall, both sections of Crossroads will be renamed and "alternative" will be deleted, Chave said.
"It's so hard to undo the myths around alternative learning centers," he said. "A lot of our students are the first to graduate high school in their families. Many have taken a winding road. This is a testament to their tenacity."
One of the graduation requirements is to complete a college and career portfolio that explores how students can be ready academically, financially and emotionally for life after high school.
"We've really moved toward college readiness," Associate Superintendent Jeff McGonigal said. "Two decades ago, graduating was seen as crossing a finish line. We now see it as a starting point for postsecondary education."
William Blizard dropped out of Coon Rapids High School his sophomore year to change diapers, prepare meals and care for his four younger siblings. His dad worked long construction shifts to support the family .
He thought he'd follow in his father's footsteps working construction but decided to go back and earn his high school diploma at Crossroads.
His attitude about school has changed.
"Before I was the average, immature punk kid. I made a lot of poor choices, and I got too far behind. I never thought I would graduate," Blizard, 20, said.
Now he's poised to graduate this spring, and he's thinking about his future. At Crossroads, he's explored a career in health care taking a class at Anoka Tech. He's now thinking about switching gears and exploring robotics and engineering. His praise for Crossroads is effusive.
"They don't treat us like kids," Blizard said. "They know we aren't kids."
His teachers helped him secure a part-time job at White Castle with flexible hours so he can still help out at home and finish school. Blizard talks about his siblings like a proud parent.
"The oldest one is the smartest in his class. It's wild watching him grow up." Blizard said.
Since elementary school, Neil Baguss, 18, saw school as a social outlet but didn't much care for the academics.
"Day one of first grade, I decided I wasn't going to do school work outside of school," Baguss said.
His parents were shocked when he told them he wasn't going to graduate from Anoka High School on time.
"It was a major explosion," said Baguss, recalling the conversation.
He transferred to Crossroads and is now on graduation track. He likes the small classes and more intimate atmosphere. It feels more like a community college than a high school.
"It's amazing how much better it is than Anoka High School," he said. "I was never able to focus before with the sheer number of students."
While finishing high school, he also works part time building computers for a Maple Grove company and serves as the teachers' de facto IT support.
Mako Abdurahman, 19, is the child of Ethiopian immigrants. She described being taunted and bullied from elementary school onward and being labeled a troublemaker when she would fight back.
"School for me was not good," Abdurahman said. "I got kicked out."
She found her way in high school but was too far behind. When she found out she would not graduate on time, she transferred to Crossroads.
She's on track to graduate this month. She now has a part-time job tutoring children in an elementary school classroom, and the girl who once disliked school now wants to be a teacher.
Drama at home and a slacker mentality derailed John Williamson's first attempt at high school.
Now enrolled at Crossroads, he is on track to graduate this spring, is taking college classes at Anoka Tech and plans on going to college. Just getting to class every day takes some ingenuity. Williamson, 18, doesn't have a stable place to live and is often crashing on couches or hanging out in downtown Minneapolis.
"I always wanted to go to college but getting there was a fuzzy thing," he said.
His time at Crossroads restored his confidence
"I am not hopeless," Williamson said. "We as a society have a choice if we are going to write people off. This is where the write-off people go … There is a very important thing happening here."