For many high school students, it's the parental disputes, the fashion failures, the petty dramas that can ruin their day.

For others, each day is a challenge to turn away from back stories that include poverty, abuse, illness, addiction, parenthood or crippling loss. In some cases, those setbacks mean that despite students' intelligence, drive or best intentions, on-time graduation proves impossible.

This fall, the Anoka Hennepin School District has reorganized its Crossroads Alternative High School, dedicating the West campus in Champlin to students who are 18-21 years old. The intent, school officials say, is to change the focus for those 150 students entering adulthood, to prepare them for the path beyond high school.

Crossroads West Alternative High School will graduate its first class of about 20 students in January. Many of them are the first in their families to wear a cap and gown.

The dedicated campus "puts the kids closest to graduation into a culture that is more of a transition for them than a finish line," said Jeff McGonigal, the district's associate superintendent for high schools.

"What we're doing is we're trying to launch kids. It's not enough to graduate. We want you going on a college-ready path or a career path."

It's a different approach than the common misconception of alternative learning centers as a path of last resort.

"The end goal has been graduation," Crossroads Principal Nancy Chave said. "Then it's been, 'Now what?'"

The aim at Crossroads West is to help students find the answer before they leave school.

The school is designed to feel less like high school and more like a college.

Even though the hours between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. are dedicated class time, students work independently and in groups to recover credits they need to graduate. Students are expected to complete the work to pass, but how they do it is a little more flexible than in a traditional school.

Collaborating with academic and professional partners, the school connects students to internship opportunities, resources and contacts for higher education. It also offers tools to help them succeed after they leave.

In Amy Anderson's English class, students were analyzing lyrics to Tom Petty's "Square One," picking out lines that spoke to them. Heather Murto, 19, of Coon Rapids, was one of several students who chose these:

"It's a dark victory/ You won and you also lost."

She explained her choice: "I win and lose all the time," she said. "Everyone knows something about winning and losing."

By her senior year, Murto had been involved in two abusive relationships. Each time, she said, her whole life fell into a spiral. During one week partway through her senior year, she was involved in a very painful and public breakup, and learned she lacked the credits to graduate.

"I was devastated," she said. "I couldn't even think."

She enrolled at Crossroads and plans to finish in January.

She said she looks forward to coming to school now, and to reaching her goals. She hopes to study cosmetology at the Aveda Institute. Her admissions interview is this week.

Several students shared the experiences that had brought them to Crossroads -- teen parenthood, a parent's car accident , persistent sexual abuse -- and their hopes for the future.

In each case, they said, a caring and supportive vibe at Crossroads has helped them to not only to succeed but to believe in themselves.

Cynthia Aguero's family struggled even before the car accident that paralyzed her mother. Her father already worked two jobs, but Aguero, then a junior, still had to work to help support the family. The stress of worrying about her mother, holding down two night jobs and caring for her siblings proved too much as she tried keep up with her classes at Champlin Park High School.

"When they told me I should go to this school, I said, 'I don't want to go there,'" she recalled. "I didn't want to be here at all."

That's changed, she said, with staff members who know what she's going through.

"They really see what's going on," she said. "They really care a lot about you. And they're really trying to make you finish school."

Aguero said after she finishes her credits in January she wants to study to become a registered nurse, first at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, then at four-year institution. Eventually, she wants to work with premature infants. Her hardships, she said, have given her strength to help other people.

"I want to prove them wrong," Aguero said of the naysayers that seem to be everywhere. But, she said, "I don't want to do it for them. I want to do it for me.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409