Paul Pereda dropped out of high school in ninth grade, went to continuation school for a while in California, dropped out of that and spent a couple years just "chilling out." He had never liked school, was always bored, never did well. But last week, the 18-year-old found himself sitting in an English class, actually paying attention.

"You can't really do anything in this world without a high school diploma," Pereda said. "Nothing comes free in this world, but if you put your mind to it, you can do it."

Night school is helping Pereda do it. After sitting through seven classes at Gar-Field High School in the day, Pereda spends four nights a week, from 6 to 9:30 p.m., at Potomac High School doing a year's worth of work for two classes in one semester. Next semester, he plans to take on the same accelerated night load and will have crammed close to two years of high school into one year.

"I'm in school on my own. No one is telling me what to do," he said. "From fifth {grade} to the time I dropped out of school, I never got anything better than a C. This year it will be A's and B's all the way. I'm much more motivated to go to school."

Before the program began last week, it would have taken him much longer, or cost much more, to finish his high school education. It has been years since Prince William County schools have offered night school. Summer school or private night school, at twice the cost, were the only choices for students who needed more than day school could offer.

"There are a group of students out there that are not in school," said Thomas Carter, who supervises alternative education for the school system. "We've been able to attract some of those back. Others would have dropped out; this let's them graduate with their peers. We can keep those kids in school."

There is no tuition charge for students taking a night course instead of going to regular school, but those repeating a class, taking additional ones or older than 19 pay $120 per subject. Currently three courses -- English 11 and 12, and American Studies 2 -- are offered at both Potomac High School and Stonewall Jackson High School.

Regular schools don't accept students older than 19; night school does. Tuition and state reimbursement for returning students should pay for the $15,000 program this semester, Carter said.

"I think it's very cost-effective," he said. "This session is not going to cost the district anything. And you have got 40 students back in school who were not in school, and you help other students graduate on time and may have stopped some from dropping out."

Carter said that of approximately 110 students enrolled, most are also going to day school, but close to 40 are returning students who had dropped out and are in need of an alternative to traditional school.

Seventeen-year-old Julie Oscar, married, three months pregnant, and working during the day, definitely needed an alternative.

"I can go to night school, I finish in February and I still graduate with my class in June and I won't have any class when the baby is born," Oscar said. And the atmosphere also suits her better: "It's more comfortable, everyone is very relaxed."

For Jeanette Smith, 17, it's a concentrated way to make up course work she needs to graduate from Potomac High School on time .

"It's better than going to day school. You just stay in one class and do that work and get to go home," she said. "There's not too many people goofing around. The teacher has more time to explain. You get more done."

Many of the students, like T.J. Kohlbecker, also 17, take seven classes during the day, one or two at night and work 20 hours a week or so. Then there are friends, studying and sleeping, not necessarily in that order.

"It's tiring," said Kohlbecker, a 10th-grader who is taking additional classes now in order to lighten his senior year load. "They treat us like we're mature."

"I really want to graduate because I want to go to college," said Ricardo Suehring, a 17-year-old Potomac High School student taking English 12. "I'll try real hard to pass because I need the credit. Also, I paid for it and I can't afford to fail."