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It didn't take Rachel Cox long to figure out she wouldn't be following the traditional path to a high school diploma.

Cox moved from Sheridan, Wyo., to Billings, where she enrolled for her freshman year at Senior High. She had never visited the school.

Then classes began.

"When I saw how big it was, I just freaked," Cox said Thursday. "There were too many kids. You couldn't concentrate."

A friend told her about another option — an alternative school, a school where you work at your own pace and where the teachers help every step of the way.

One week later, Cox transferred.

Now, five years after that, she became one of the 23 members of the 2003 graduating class of Billings' Crossroads Alternative Learning Center.

Students and teachers have plenty to celebrate at Crossroads' graduation ceremony today, which is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Shrine Auditorium.

Getting a degree from Crossroads means succeeding after other schools didn't work, students say. They're not sure they would have come this far at traditional high schools, which typically don't have as many programs for at-risk students.

Ashley Grimm came to Crossroads during her freshman year after she was caught drinking at her previous high school's homecoming football game.

"They basically kicked me out," said Grimm, who was a junior-varsity cheerleader at the time. "I was supposed to be a role model."

This fall, she'll be studying secondary education at Montana State University-Billings. Grimm doubts she would be going to college at all if not for Crossroads.

"I just wouldn't have made it through, period," she said.

She and others credit their success to the school's teaching methods. Course objectives are outlined at the beginning of each semester, with the expectation that students will complete the work at their own pace. Classes are smaller, and students say they receive more attention and guidance from teachers than they did at other schools.

2003 graduates

The 2003 graduating class of The Crossroads Alternative learning Center includes:

Miranda Ask; Anthony Baird; Jason Baker; Stephanie Bertrand; Fallon Busby; Kelsey Clark; Rachel Cox; Emily Fox; Lexie Gardner; Ashley Grimm; Carimie Iron; Dorothy King; Jerry Lattin; Kendra Marshall; Eric Martin; Tara McGill; Tara Nash Ward; Erica Pacheco; Sheena Noble; Felicia Silva; April Wallace; Kara Walsh and Jennifer Williams.

"The teachers understand what we're going through. They understand that this is hard," said Jennifer Williams, another graduating senior.

Added Fallon Busby: "They give us a chance to make it."

That isn't always easy for the teachers. For Hope Wilson, an English instructor, and elective teacher Shirley Rogers, frustration can pop up when students get discouraged or don't show up for class.

In those cases, Wilson and Rogers put their "tough love" strategy to work.

They'll call a missing student and tell him or her to come to school. If the student doesn't have a ride, they'll drive.

"They need somebody to advocate for them," Rogers said. "We give them hope here."

Both teachers say the students have impressed them.

When they first came to Crossroads, Wilson said, some students struggled to write a complete sentence. But now they're turning in well-researched, logical papers.

"The growth and the maturing of these kids has been phenomenal," she said, noting that students now use less foul language and are quieter in class.

For Busby, those things have been part of the learning process. She was removed from her last high school for causing scenes in class and mouthing off to a teacher. But now she says she respects her teachers.

"You treat them how you want to be treated," said Busby, who plans to take a year off after graduation, then enroll at the Art Institute of Seattle to study fashion design.

When asked if they think they're prepared for the real world, the students give an enthusiastic yes.

How can they tell?

"We've grown up," Cox said. "We're ready."