Taylor Johnson, 18, dropped out of school about a year ago just two credits shy of her high school diploma.
Without family support and living on her own, she wasn't able to return to her old out-of-state school.
"I worked seven days a week and had three jobs," said the now-Kennewick teen.
Rebecca Dorris, 18, and Yamilet Duran, 19, also dropped out after changing schools frequently and trying online programs that didn't work for them.
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"I was behind like 10 credits and decided I just couldn't do it," Dorris said.
But they were in school Monday at Columbia Basin College's High School Academy as thousands of other students filled the college's Pasco and Richland campuses for the first day of class. The women said they couldn't be happier.
"They believe in us," Duran said. "We don't feel like losers."
The Kennewick School District has sent many former dropouts to the program after visiting them at their homes as part of the "We Want You Back" program.
Now the district is changing tactics -- calling former students first to reach more and develop stronger relationships -- to get them back in school.
"We're trying to take down more and more barriers," said Assistant Superintendent Ron Williamson.
The academy has been around since 2011 and is aimed at helping dropouts who either are too old to go back into a traditional high school environment or weren't able to succeed there and need more than a GED diploma.
Kennewick's "We Want You Back" campaign began a year later, with volunteers visiting the homes of former students who are at least 18 but still young enough that they wouldn't necessarily feel out of place in a traditional or alternative high school.
The district is working with Fast Forward, a nonprofit affiliated with the Boys & Girls Clubs, to further reach out to students who've dropped out.
The district is providing information on dropouts, such as their emergency contact information and how behind they are on their diploma so staff can call them or look for them before arranging a meeting.
"We weren't getting a lot of bang for our buck," Williamson said, compared home visits in previous years.
Every student has a different reason for leaving school early. Some didn't do well academically because they felt out of place at school and are wary of returning. Others contended with family problems, substance abuse or moved too often.
Johnson said a Tri-City high school refused to let her enroll because she was a dropout and school officials didn't think she'd be able to graduate.
Making sure students at the academy can finish their credits is just part of the goal, officials said. It's also important the students know they have a support network.
"Making sure they have the resources to do school is a big part of it," said Andrea Locati, operations director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton and Franklin Counties.
Studying at the academy isn't like a typical day in high school. Three months of coursework are condensed into a month and projects and assignments often carry over between terms.
"It's the first day and we have a 200-point project due," Taylor said.
"They don't waste any time," Dorris added.
Not all the students the district and others reach out to will end up coming back to school, officials said.
Some will even start the process to return to school and back out at the last minute, concerned about being able to support a family or worried they will fail. But then there are others who regularly say thank you to staff for the helping them along the way to a diploma.
"My response is, 'You did all the work,'" said Nick Coleman, Fast Forward coordinator.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; email@example.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald
BREAKOUT: Want to finish your high school degree?
Students who have dropped out of school, are 16 to 21 and interested in finishing their education should contact Nick Coleman with Fast Forward at 509-416-0304 or firstname.lastname@example.org