Amid this spring's high-school graduates is a group that has had to overcome more obstacles than most others.

They were dropouts or lagged so far behind in credits that they were headed that way fast. Others were simply so old that it didn't make sense for them to remain in regular classrooms.

But unlike so many others in their predicament, these students took advantage of the Philadelphia School District's Accelerated High Schools Program.

Started in 2004 by Paul Vallas, the district's former chief executive, the program has grown to seven schools that enroll 1,175 students from age 16 to 21. A student typically enters having earned eight or fewer credits toward the 23.5 needed to graduate.

The schools will graduate about 250 this year, with the average student having taken 24 months of courses.

This afternoon, 19 of them will graduate from the three accelerated-learning academies operated by Community Education Partners, a Nashville-based for-profit company. The 1 p.m. ceremony will be at CEP's Hunting Park campus, 4224 N. Front St.

Several of the students are parents, some have been involved with drugs. One has rallied to receive a full scholarship to Penn State University, said Barbara Braman, a CEP vice president.

"When we look at the graduation rate and we see the large number of students who do not complete for a variety of reasons," she said, "if we know these students have promise, then we need to do what we can as educators to help them achieve that promise."

Braman, a former school-district teacher and administrator, noted that students at CEP's schools also receive career counseling and training in job readiness and life skills.

Courtney Collins-Shapiro, director of the school district's Multiple Pathways to Graduation Program, said it is all very positive.

"If you look at what's going on at these schools, we have 1,175 kids in school who were not in school before . . . and this year we have 250 kids who are graduating who did not think they would graduate - but now they have gotten their diplomas," he said. "Those are first steps."

By the 2009-10 school year, the district expects to have revamped the accelerated schools and schools that serve disruptive students.

"We want to have the best system for disconnected youth in the city," Collins-Shapiro said.

The district spends $8.8 million on six of the accelerated schools and $1.5 million in federal grant money on the seventh. *