IT IS EARLY, not quite time for the 9:30 a.m. English-composition class at Community College of Philadelphia to begin.

Arielle Wilson is the first student in her seat. And she's ready to go.

"She's always here before I am," says CCP instructor Nichole Webster, who usually arrives about 9:15.

Later, Webster begins class with a discussion about advertising, as prelude to a writing assignment. "Which has a greater effect on you - still pictures or television commercials?" Webster asks.

Nearly everyone in the class of about 10 students answers "television."

But not Arielle.

"Still pictures," she answers. "They can be more emotional."

She says a television commercial flashes on the screen and, in a matter of seconds, it flickers away. But still pictures "stay with you for a longer time," she says.

Just 16, Arielle more than holds her own in this unique CCP class.

She's also holding a 4.0 grade-point average.

It's hard to believe that this serious and disciplined young woman was a Philadelphia high-school dropout just a few months ago. So were the other students in her English class.

That was then.

Now Arielle and the others are on their way to a college degree.

Arielle is a member of the first group of 40 students - all former Philadelphia public-high-school dropouts - who were accepted into CCP's Gateway to College initiative last September.

Gateway is the Philly version of a national program that started in Portland, Ore., seven years ago. In it, dropouts age 16 to 20 take classes in small groups at Community College, working on both a high-school diploma - not a GED - and a college associate's degree at the same time.

The program is designed for bright kids - applicants must read at an 8th-grade level - who dropped out because they couldn't ignore the disruptions and temptations of high school.

Gateway is part of a growing understanding in Philadelphia and elsewhere that traditional high schools don't suit all students. The goal is to develop a range of ways to get young people out of high school and into college, working on degrees that could lead to a career.

Likewise, the program embraces work: Nationally many Gateway students already work full-time, a fact for which the program makes adjustments.

School experts in Philly and nationally hope programs like Gateway make a dent in dropout rates. National studies show that one in three high-school students drops out of school. But in Philadelphia the dropout rate is closer to one in two high schoolers.

The Philadelphia School District is a partner with Community College and the Gateway program, said Courtney Collins-Shapiro, director of the district's Multiple Paths to Graduation office. The school district helps provide funding for the program, says CCP spokesman Anthony Twyman, paying $1,500 per student per semester.

Collins-Shapiro says students leave high school for a number of reasons: A "family challenge," perhaps a new baby, or a court case after getting into trouble. Sometimes students leave thinking they can find a job - then learn they're not prepared for the job market.

Arielle says she dropped out of Martin Luther King High School in December 2005 because of a disruptive school climate. Many students acted up and made it harder for those who wanted to learn.

"It didn't seem like they cared about education," Wilson says. "It was a joke."

Arielle, from Mount Airy, was home-schooled during her middle-school years. When it was time for high school, she says, she decided to try her neighborhood school.

"I wanted to see what it [high school] was like." She was disappointed, and left after only a few months.

But with a semester and a half behind her at Community College, Arielle says she's glad to be part of Gateway to College.

"It's over and beyond what I expected," she says.

Chrystopher Palms, another member of the first group of Gateway students, is also doing well, said Brendon Comer, director of CCP's Gateway to College initiative.

Both Arielle and Chrystopher are now "ambassadors" who discuss the Gateway system to new groups of prospective students.

"We see it as an opportunity for them to develop leadership skills," says Comer. Also, when dropouts see young adults pursuing a diploma and a college degree, she says, it makes it easier to believe they can do the same thing.

Chrystopher, now 17, dropped out of Frankford High shortly after he enrolled, after his family moved to Philadelphia from New Jersey.

He, too, said "a lot of nonsense" was going on in high school. He used to cut classes and ride SEPTA downtown with friends.

Now, the Mayfair resident is all about business. And business is a likely career for him, he says.

In fact, his teacher, Webster, says she's worried he is working too hard at his job outside class - though she says he is a good student.

Chrystopher says the Gateway program has "exceeded my expectations. There's a lot more support than I thought it would be."

At CCP, three academic coordinators are assigned to groups of Gateway students, conducting a head count at the start of each class to make sure students are present.

If someone's not there, hasn't turned in needed assignments or is part of another problem, the academic coordinators may have a quick chat with the instructor.

Then they phone the student and warn that his or her scholarship could be lost.

Gateway to College began seven years ago at Portland Community College as a way to "reconnect" young adults to education.

The program was deemed so successful that it received $10.25 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and three other charities to expand to community colleges around the country. (The other donors are the Carnegie Corp., the Ford Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.)

Only 12 of the 40 students who began Gateway at CCP last September are no longer enrolled, CCP spokesman Twyman said. Of the 12, five left voluntarily, he says. Those who left the program did so for a number of reasons - but rules say students must complete assignments and attend class regularly to keep their scholarships.

Twyman says the 70 percent retention rate is about on par with other Gateway programs around the country.

In January, another 60 former dropouts were enrolled. That makes 88 former dropouts, including Arielle, now pursuing education and better lives.

Webster says not only is Arielle unusually prompt for her classes, she is also serious about her studies and takes an active part in class discussions.

"Arielle is very open to constructive criticism," says Webster, a CCP instructor for four years. "She's her harshest critic."

CCP is now recruiting students for the Summer 2007 semester. Classes begin May 14. Openings exist for the March information sessions; students must register by calling the Gateway to College hotline at 215-751-8540. Also, employers can donate to Gateway by calling the hotline, selecting option 3 and leaving a message.