"We get a lot of kids in here that have been kind of shafted by the public school system," she says. "We don't care where you've been, what you've done."
Downey is the school secretary for Mavericks High of Palm Beach County. On an August morning three weeks before the school's grand opening, she's giving a visitor the tour. The two-story building on Congress Avenue is marked by a "Mavericks High" sign in enormous blue letters, with the "a" replaced by a red star.
Inside, the tour begins with the "high-tech library," a sunlit room facing the street, full of computers but absent of books (the school would later ask for book donations). Next, the combined junior and senior classroom consists of five rows of computer cubicles, the walls decorated with colorful posters advertising language arts and writing. Students will spend three hours a day in these cubes, working on an online curriculum while teachers and academic coaches wander the aisles to answer questions.
In the back behind the cubicles is a smaller, more traditional classroom, windowless, with a large table and chairs. For the first hour of the day, students have a lesson here and can also receive one-on-one tutoring.
Mavericks also has a "family coordinator," Marla Green, who helps keep parents informed about their kids' progress and gives students much-needed attention.
"Miss Green — she knows when something is bothering me," 11th-grader Ebonee Parker said at an August ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Palm Springs school.
"You feel like they're really concerned about you," the mother of another student added.
School runs in four-hour shifts, the first beginning at 7:30 a.m., the second at 12:30 p.m. Five hundred students, ages 15 to 21, choose whichever shift fits their schedule, and staffers stand smiling at the door to welcome them, Downey says.
Every Friday, some students graduate from one grade to the next, as soon as they receive enough academic credits. In fact, some students return to their regular high schools once they've earned enough credits to get back on track. In this way, Mavericks can serve as a sort of accelerated summer school, handing out credits and diplomas throughout the year. But diplomas remain rare — records show most Mavericks schools graduate less than 15 percent of eligible students.