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The soft-spoken 18-year-old walked beside the principal, following his direction past the folding chairs and onto the stage.

Taylor Wilson of Lincoln, who is legally blind, practiced walking the path he needed to take shortly before his high school graduation ceremony Friday.

His disability was part of the reason he and his parents enrolled him in the Independent Study High School at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"It gives me free time, whereas at my other schools I had to come home at four and do work until bedtime," he said. "Here I could just take my own pace."

Taylor joined 10 other graduates of the high school Friday for a graduation ceremony at the UNL Nebraska Union Ballroom.

The school is celebrating its 80th year at UNL, where it was founded to give students of kindergarten through eighth-grade-only schools a chance to attend high school.

Today, it administers online courses to roughly 2,500-3,000 students at any given time, said Director Tim Ernst. Currently, students from 135 countries are enrolled in classes.

Teachers communicate with students via e-mail, video conferencing and other means, he said. Students take tests overseen by school-approved proctors and have one year to complete courses.

Twenty-one teachers, who are mostly from Lincoln and work part-time for the school, oversee courses.

The students include children of military parents living overseas and nontraditional students wanting to earn diplomas, as well as athletes, actors and musicians whose schedules prevent them from attending a regular "brick and mortar" school.

Some students enroll in the school because it better fits their learning style, said Principal Barry Stark.

Ernst said he's noticed an increase in the number of public school students who leave those schools out of frustration toward juvenile antics.

The school has many celebrity alumni, including former "Cosby Show" actress Lisa Bonet, champion figure skaters Scott Hamilton and Michelle Kwan, and tennis player Andy Roddick.

But the school's most famous alumni are Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, who both received diplomas, Stark said.

"They're just kids when they're with us," Ernst said. "We don't care about their prior history."

Stark said the school isn't rare among independent study high schools, but it is considered one of the best.

That's partly because it is a nonprofit school, which means it's focused more on student achievement rather than profit, he said. The school's success also can be attributed to the high standards it sets for itself.

"There's a lot of competition out there," Ernst said. "We are known for being very rigorous in our courses."

In addition, while most other such schools are accredited by regional accrediting agencies, the Independent Study High School is accredited by the Nebraska Department of Education.

"We are a fully functioning high school, according to our Department of Education of Nebraska," Ernst said.

Pat Wilson, Taylor's mother, said her son had trouble keeping up with reading assignments at other schools. The Independent Study High School allowed him to learn at his own pace.

But it also allowed him to learn the way he wanted to learn.

"He likes to understand (a subject) by connecting it with things that he knows," she said.

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 473-7225 or

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