By Nandini Jayakrishna, Globe Staff
CHELSEA -- Some struggled to learn English; others fought bouts of alcoholism.
Some went to school once every two weeks; others decided even that was too much.
They have battled behavioral problems, academic failures, personal tragedies, or substance abuse.
But Thursday, the 13 graduating seniors of Phoenix Charter Academy will prove they were able to pick up the broken pieces and move on, that they succeeded even when some told them they could not.
"We have all made mistakes," Senior Jessica T. Gedeus, 18, said at a class dinner Tuesday, amid smiles, cheers and unstoppable tears of gratitude. "But...look at us now: Class of '09."
Ranging in age from 18 to 21, most members of the school's second graduating class will be the first in their families to earn a high school degree.
Nicholas R. Marston, who coordinates individualized academic plans for each student and supports them during their first year of college, described the group as persistent and ambitious.
"There's a shared sense of mission," he said. "This is like 'We're all in this for the same thing. We need to reclaim ourselves.'"
A tuition-free public charter school, Phoenix Academy caters to about 150 students, including many who have tried their luck at regular public schools with little success. The school, which has no grade levels, combines traditional modes of learning with innovative, individualized classes and teaching techniques, serving students of different ages and backgrounds, said Beth E. Anderson, the school's executive director.
"I was tired of seeing so many older young people not in high school, and yet showing some major strengths and raw talent that, with a high school education, could probably turn into something great and resourceful for our communities," said Anderson, who founded the school in 2006.
Ashley S. Powell, this year's co-valedictorian, said she started her high school career at Medford High School, but quickly realized it wasn't the place for her.
"I had a really bad anger problem," said the 18-year-old, who got into fights and started skipping school.
One day, while she was at the library during school hours, she found the Phoenix Academy Web site. It was perfect: a small school that offered students like her another chance. She printed out the application and mailed it the day after.
"I was really happy because it was a chance for me to start over," said Powell who is heading to St. John's University in Staten Island, NY, this fall.
She hopes to go to law school eventually. "I think I'm good at arguing," she said with a laugh.
The school year at Phoenix Academy, housed in a building owned by the Archdiocese of Boston, runs from August through June. The slightly extended school year and an 8-hour school day allow students to earn more credits and make up for lost time. A day care facility in the school helps teenage mothers attend classes without having to worry about the safety of their children.
Like Powell, Josue Ithier, 18, another senior, had a history of truancy. At first his old habits followed him to Phoenix Academy, but the teachers didn't give up on him.
They called, text messaged, and tried other threats. "They said, 'I'm going to come to your house and pick you up if you don't come,' " said Ithier, also attending St. John's University to study sports management.
The staff at Phoenix Academy practice a philosophy of "relentless support," said Olivia L. Lahann, director of assessment.
"I can't imagine a weekend without talking to a student," agreed Sarah C. Miller, dean of student and family support.
When they first come to Phoenix, a majority of students are two or more grade levels behind. Some have been out of school for years.
"We've had to teach how to add double digit numbers here," Anderson said.
Students take regular classes in English, history, math and science, but also learn about sexual violence prevention and parenting. To take a break from their often unstable lives outside school, they practice yoga. To simply have fun, they learn salsa.
But they are still held to high academic standards. They must have at least a C- average and be accepted to a two- or four-year college to graduate, Anderson said.
From asking students to sit up straight or tuck in their shirts, to making them rewrite literary analysis essays about 12 times, teachers don't hesitate to crack the whip at Phoenix Academy. The discipline and support have inspired the soon-to-be graduates to dream big.
Maria G. Lara, 20, who arrived from Nicaragua three years ago and will be the school's other valedictorian today, wants to become a pediatrician. Gedeus, who plans to study business administration, wants to become a fashion designer, and has even decided the name of her clothing line: Cherieamour.
For Maira B. Bonilla, 19, earning a diploma today will be more than a personal accomplishment: she hopes it will inspire her twin sister to do the same.
"I want to show her that she can do it; it's not too late," Bonilla said. "It took me a long time but I did it. I'm so happy."
Graduation will be held Thursday at Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown at 2 p.m.
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