What strikes you first about the students who recently graduated or are about to graduate from the Payson Center for Success is how bright and articulate they are.
What strikes you next is how readily and enthusiastically they use these traits to heap praise on the institution they are leaving.
Mike Shreeve, who graduated in November, switched to PCS because he too often succumbed to the temptation to "ditch" when he was in a normal school setting.
"You work your butt off because you want to graduate and you like the work," Shreeve said. "You want to spend time at the school because the teachers are great. And the students who are here all want to work, so you're in a great atmosphere."
PCS is a charter high school operated by the Payson Unified School District, one of only two charter schools in Arizona run by a school district. It was founded in 1996 for students 16-21 who, for whatever reason, function better in a non-traditional educational setting.
The charter school concept was developed to provide an alternative to public schools. According to the Center for Education Reform, a Washington D.C.-based research organization, charter schools are a diverse group of independent public schools that are allowed "to operate freed from the traditional bureaucratic and regulatory red tape that hog-ties public schools."
The charter school movement began in the early 1990s, with Arizona passing the strongest of the nation's charter laws in 1994. There are more than 300 charter schools operating in Arizona, more than any other state.
PCS, which is located at 501 S. McLane Road, has 54 students and a muddy image in the community, according to Principal Monica Nitzsche.
"A lot of people think we're an alternative school, and we're not," Nitzsche said. "These kids are here for a lot of reasons, but they never got kicked out of high school and they're not here because they got in trouble. They're bright kids, they're outstanding kids, and that's the message I hope we can get to the community. These are great kids."
Spend some time with these grads and you can't help but agree. Besides Shreeve, they include Megan Reed, Cassandra Ball, Rose Henderson, Josh Lammers, Erin Neal and Brandon Conti. All have plans to continue their education at the college level. Shreeve is off to Northern Arizona University in August where he plans to major in finance.
While the others are headed for places like Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Mesa Community College, Conti plans to attend two schools simultaneously -- Universal Technical Institute and DeVry Institute of Technology.
One of the things Conti and his classmates like best about PCS is the opportunity to get a jump-start on their higher education. Because PCS students work at their own pace, most graduate sooner than if they attended Payson High School.
"None of us were supposed to graduate until the end of this school year," Conti said.
Another aspect of the PCS experience the grads treasure is the opportunity to do community service work.
"We're required to do five hours a semester and 10 hours a year of community involvement," Reed said. "A lot of people don't see how that's going to help them with anything, but as I looked over all the scholarship papers that I'm starting to fill out, they always are asking what are you doing in the community. It looks really good on my job applications and it's really useful."
Besides doing things like working with elementary school students, one PCS student served on the Veteran's Day Parade Committee, and another literally helped an elderly Payson resident move.
The PCS grads also appreciated the opportunity afforded them by special programs the school offers. Henderson visited a local dentist's office as part of a job shadow program.
"When I went to see this dental assistant job, it just happened that they had a person who was leaving," she said. "They offered me a job, and I still work there."
When asked if they feel they are missing anything by not attending a "normal" high school, the group responded with an emphatic chorus of "no, not at all."
PCS students are allowed to take elective courses at Payson High and participate in sports if they are not bumping a PHS student in the process. Lammers, for example, was a member of the state champion PHS soccer team.
"It depends on the activity and if there's an opening," Nitzsche said. "(PHS has) worked with us beautifully, and we haven't had to turn down any student."
The biggest objection the PCS grads had to PHS is the potential for getting lost in the large high school shuffle, something they say can't happen at PCS.
"The teachers know each one of us personally," Ball said. "They know who we are, what our problems are, what our likes are, what our dislikes are. They know how we learn, what we need to learn. They know us and who we are."
"It's really interesting that I've never been able to walk in here and be having a bad day, tears in my eyes, or ticked off, or upset about anything without every single teacher asking me what is wrong," Reed said.
"You cannot get away with hiding your emotions here. It's impossible. It's just a totally different environment, and having the personal attention is really nice when you need it. It's like having a second family."
Because instruction is self-paced, each PCS student graduates at a different time. But in May, most come back for a graduation ceremony that captures the spirit of what the school is all about.
"We do a Powerpoint presentation highlighting every student from when they were little through graduation," Nitzsche said. "It's pretty emotional."