Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

A Chelsea school’s grand ambition

It’s tassel-turning-time, a few weeks to celebrate kids who have made it through high school, but also a moment to consider ways to help other students clear that crucial threshold.

That’s what brought me to the Phoenix Charter Academy in Chelsea this week, a school that pours its heart and soul into helping kids who have dropped out or are at risk of leaving school. Phoenix’s animating idea is to be an alternative high school with genuinely high standards, one that leaves those challenged and challenging students ready for college work.

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Of its 225 students, 42 percent are former dropouts; 50 percent are 19 or older; 18 percent are pregnant or parenting. Forty-two percent have had trouble with the law.

“We’re saying, ‘One mistake does not your future make,’ ” says Sarah Miller, the school’s first principal and now the managing director of innovation and training for the Phoenix Charter Academy Network.

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The student population is overwhelmingly African-American, Hispanic, and low income. A quarter are English-language learners. One-fifth have special education needs.

Completing high school is a tough journey for these students. Phoenix’s five-year graduation rate is in the 20 to 25 percent range. But these are kids who otherwise would probably never get a diploma. As part of Phoenix’s graduation requirement, students must be accepted by a college.

“Then we harass the heck out of them to go,” says Beth Anderson, founder and CEO at the Phoenix network.

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Eighty percent do, most at community colleges, but one-fifth at four-year schools. Those who don’t matriculate are usually undocumented.

Part of the Phoenix formula is daily tutoring focused on students’ skill gaps, done by AmeriCorps volunteers. Part of it is the expanded learning time: Phoenix goes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Charlier Paul, 17, who makes the hour-plus public-transit trip from Dorchester each day, told me the longer school day took some getting used to, but that he has come to like it.

“I have a second family here,” says Paul, who has been accepted at UMass Boston.

Phoenix also offers what Anderson calls “relentless support,” including a concerted effort at increasing attendance. And a day-care center. One student I met, a shy 24-year-old named Reina Lemus Hernandez, has her twin boys there as she works to earn her diploma.

From what I saw sitting in on physics and biology classes, the academics are rigorous. Unusual for an alternative school, the charter has advanced-placement courses. On the 2014 MCAS, 78 percent scored proficient or higher in English, while 63 percent were in that range in math, and 54 percent scored there in science and technology.

Anderson, a Brandeis graduate who was inspired by the four years she spent in South Central Los Angeles with Teach for America, said that when she first began discussing her Phoenix idea, the response was discouraging.

Phoenix Charter Academy pours its heart and soul into helping kids who have dropped out or are at risk of leaving school.

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“Everyone said, ‘It’s going to fail, you bleeding-heart-liberal, you won’t get kids, you won’t get staff,’ ” she recalls.

Instead, the results have been strong enough that Jeff Riley, the Lawrence superintendent/receiver, asked Anderson to run an in-district high school there.

“They are working with some of our hardest to reach kids and doing a good job of getting them across the finish line,” says Riley. Last August, Phoenix opened a charter high school as part of Springfield’s school-improvement partnership.

Charter foes often level the (baseless) charge that charters try to cream the easiest-to-educate kids. Phoenix does exactly the opposite, catering to struggling students. At a time when several communities are bumping up against the charter school cap, this vital school underscores the value that charters add in Massachusetts.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.
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