Metro

Adrian Walker

Chelsea charter program that taught struggling kids reaches a milestone

Beth Anderson was a champion of charter schools before they became a political and educational battleground.

The school she founded, Phoenix Charter Academy, was conceived as an alternative school for students who had given up on traditional high school, or who felt that their schools had given up on them. As it celebrates its 10-year anniversary this week, it remains a haven for students who thought they might never finish high school.

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Phoenix now serves 500 students in three schools — in Chelsea, Springfield, and in Lawrence, where Phoenix is part of a joint venture with the Lawrence Public Schools.

The raging debate around charter schools has become, as much as anything, a fight about resources. That wasn’t always the case. The first Phoenix students weren’t lured away from public schools; usually they had dropped out, or been kicked out. The average age was significantly older than a typical high school student.

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Anderson began with a simple idea: that students who were failing did not have to fail. “I really worked on the idea of a school that would open its doors for adolescents who just wanted a chance and wanted an economically viable life,” Anderson said Thursday. “I think everyone should have that.”

Anderson had been a teacher for a couple of years in South Central Los Angeles, in the early years of the Teach For America program. When she moved to Chelsea, she worked at Roca, a landmark social-service agency dedicated to helping adolescents and young adults, many of them in legal trouble, find their footing. There she came to appreciate anew how many kids were failed by schools. The idea of starting a school herself began to take root.

To her mind, Phoenix’s success comes, in part, from providing enough services to keep students from failing. That could range from tutoring to day care. Another ingredient is an absolute refusal to allow students to quit on themselves.

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“They need adults who believe in them, and will never give up on them,” Anderson said. “Equal to that, we need to provide a benchmark of success that is real. We don’t lie to kids about what they’re going to need to do to succeed.”

One of the school’s biggest fans is Governor Charlie Baker. He met Anderson at a fund-raiser around 2008, and was so impressed on a subsequent tour of the Chelsea school that he joined the board, resigning only when he was elected governor.

In an interview, he praised Anderson’s relentless approach to helping young people succeed where they had failed. “They serve kids nobody told not to drop out,” Baker said. “They don’t quit on these kids.”

He noted that the school is notorious for tracking down kids who have stopped showing up and pushing them to go back to school. “When I talked to kids in the various Phoenix schools, the message was always ‘These people care about me, and so I care about what happens to me too.’ ” said Baker. “That belief has a huge impact.”

I’ve never had much patience for the debate over charter schools. Charters are no panacea, but neither are other schools. Students and their families deserve access to schools that can give them an education and a path to success. The structure of those schools doesn’t really matter to me. Schools succeed when resources, support, and passion come together. Traditional schools don’t have a monopoly on those qualities.

Lawmakers are currently in yet another battle over the future of charters — whether to lift the state’s cap on charters or whether to leave it in place, and whether the schools should be regulated in other ways. It’s the predictable Beacon Hill morass.

What Massachusetts can never have enough of is educators who believe in students as fiercely as Beth Anderson. We talk too much about failing schools, but not nearly enough about saving struggling kids.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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