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An easy vote for the Board of Education

Posted by Jim Stergios  February 25, 2013 09:55 AM

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Tomorrow’s Board of Education meeting expects a crowd. Applicants for five new charter schools and 11 expansions will be on hand, as will detractors. There will be those on hand who pursued and opposed new charters that were denied the commissioner’s recommendation and therefore will not be brought to a Board vote. Push into that mix the oddly timed, late Friday news release (to one news source) that the Renaissance charter school is likely to be placed on probation, and you have a pretty full agenda and set of possible items that could come up.

So plenty of opportunity for eruptions, interruptions, and controversy. On the underlying five new charter and 11 expansion applications that will be at the center of tomorrow’s agenda, there will be little to no controversy. That is especially so for the application submitted by the Phoenix Charter Academy, a Chelsea-based charter focused on serving at-risk students and dropouts and giving them a new lease on graduation and college preparation.

A while back, I shared in a series of blog posts some of the key elements of Phoenix, such as its hyper-focus on creating a culture of success among kids (and often college-age adults) who have lacked all structure and who were ill-served by the district school system, the clarity of its mission which has the benefit of clarifying roles and priorities within the school, its programmatic offerings to make college preparation a possibility for young mothers who want a better future for themselves and their kids, and their teacher recruitment and retention strategies, which are especially important given the difficulty of the school’s mission.

Since those posts a year and a half ago, students at Phoenix have continued to show terrific progress, even as the charter has increased its collaboration with the Chelsea district system. They also take on the gargantuan task of leading efforts within the Lawrence district schools to reclaim the educational futures of dropouts in the struggling mill city on the Merrimack. I’ve been critical of the overall plan for the turnaround of the district schools (here and here), because it does not reach enough of the city’s 13,000 kids; that said, some of the work of the school receiver Jeff Riley and the charters there is promising.

Phoenix is poised now to expand out to the Springfield area. And the Springfield school application continues to build on the Academy’s laser focus on at-risk students and dropouts.

Here’s the mission as described in the 123-page final application submitted to the Department of Education:

Phoenix Charter Academy Springfield’s (Phoenix Springfield) mission is to challenge teenagers in Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee with an academically rigorous and individually tailored curriculum. At Phoenix Springfield, talented students, some who have not succeeded in other schools, have the support, resources and training needed to succeed academically in high school and college, and become economically secure in their future.

The Academy

target[s] students who turn to alternative education when traditional school systems fail, often including students who have dropped out of school, have struggled with truancy and chronic absenteeism in the past, are involved with the Department of Youth Services or the Department of Children and Families, are pregnant or parenting children of their own, and/or are recent immigrants to the country.

In Lawrence, where again Phoenix has been invited to bring its expertise, almost one of two students does not complete high school. (The sheer extent of the problem is why I have been vocal in calling for Phoenix and the other charters currently working in district schools to be granted full charters. Bringing in Phoenix and some other charters to support the Lawrence receiver’s district turnaround plan is fine, but it is ultimately focused on the wrong thing – the district – as opposed to the kids.) Springfield faces similar challenges, and this application fills a real need in the City of Homes.

The problem statement in the Academy’s Springfield application is spot on:

Across America, students are dropping out of high school at an alarming rate. According to Education Week’s 2012 Diplomas Count, “Nearly 1.2 million students from 2008’s high school class (the most recent year for which data was available) failed to graduate with a diploma. That amounts to 6,400 students lost each day of the year, or one student every 27 seconds” (23). Among students of color, this problem is particularly prevalent: only 57% of Latino students and 57.6% of African American students from the class of 2008 successfully finished high school, compared to 78.4% of white students (Diplomas Count 2012, 23). Dropping out of high school has severe economic and social consequences. The unemployment rate of high school dropouts is four times that of college graduates, and high school dropouts are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, homeless, or recipients of government services (Kazis 2002, 4). On average, each dropout costs the United States nearly $300,000 in lost Earnings over the course of his/her lifetime (Rennie Center 2011, 1). Phoenix Charter Academy Springfield’s target communities face the reality of the dropout crisis on a daily basis. In the 2012-13 school year, Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke had five-year graduation rates of 56.1%, 71.2%, and 56.1%, respectively, all significantly lower than the statewide four-year rate of 84.7%. As in the nation at large, the costs of dropping out of high school reverberate through the Massachusetts economy: the average high school dropout in Massachusetts makes $10,000 less annually than a high school graduate and $34,000 less annually than a college graduate (The Boston Foundation, 2010).

Phoenix’s approach of blending high-accountability and a focus on at-risk students is certainly focused on academic rigor. Students

must demonstrate mastery of upper-level math, science, and humanities classes in order to graduate, and are required to receive a college acceptance letter prior to graduation. Our College Services Department, Phoenix Through College, works with every student to help him/her map his/her course through high school and college.

But it takes more than rigor and accountability. The goal of passing the MCAS, graduating from high school and preparing for success in college certainly requires rigor but also “comprehensive socio-emotional supports” and constant engagement from the staff and support services that include

a student support center that serves as a resource for students who need coaching to model the characteristics of a scholar, on-site social workers who connect students to collateral supports in the community, an on-site childcare center that offers services to teen parents, and outreach workers who tirelessly endeavor to keep students connected to and engaged in school.

The results speak for themselves.

In 2012, 86% of students scored advanced or proficient on the English Language Arts MCAS exam, as did 72% on the math exam, beating all but one of the school’s sending districts. Additionally, 77 students have now graduated from Phoenix, and 100% of those students have been accepted to college.

Embedded in Phoenix’s application is the following chart of student MCAS proficiency levels. It tells you all you need to know about why Phoenix’s application will sail through.

Phoenix Charter perf.jpg

Here is what Phoenix Springfield is seeking to accomplish in the words of Phoenix Academies founder, Beth Anderson.



Good luck to Beth and the team, and to the many Springfield students who will pass through its doors.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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