Op-ed: Charter and district schools need not be adversaries

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By Thomas Birmingham
This op-ed appeared in the New Bedford Standard TimesThe Lowell Sun, The Springfield Republican, and The MetroWest Daily News.

In the run-up to a November ballot initiative that would allow more charter schools to open in Massachusetts, charter and traditional public schools have been cast in an adversarial relationship. But that isn’t always the case.

The Phoenix Academies Network operates charter schools in Chelsea and Springfield, and a district school that is part of the turnaround effort underway in Lawrence. The schools focus on at-risk students like teen parents, the chronically truant, court-involved students, those with special needs, English language learners, and young men and women who have already dropped out. Like all charters, Phoenix’s schools can’t choose their students, but they can make it known that they are alternative institutions whose mission is to serve disconnected youth.

I couldn’t help but pay attention when the first Phoenix Academy opened in 2006; it’s just a block from my home in Chelsea and I see the students going to school nearly every day.

When that school opened, a number of Massachusetts charters were already achieving great success with educational models that hold students to very high standards and expectations. Phoenix founder Beth Anderson knew that the at-risk students she sought to serve deserved the kinds of opportunities found in these great charters. She recognized, however, that such students would need additional services to achieve high standards. So she set out to create a new model.

Phoenix is different from other programs designed to serve at-risk students. Most are embedded in school districts, but each Phoenix Charter Academy is a stand-alone school. Phoenix also stresses academic rigor and preparing students for college, not just helping them graduate from high school.

Demanding academic rigor from students who face a wide range of serious challenges requires a great deal of patience and the flexibility to adapt to individual needs. The model is a work in progress, but the key is what Anderson calls “relentless support.”

An Attendance Transformation Team identifies students who struggle with the motivation to come to school on a regular basis, crafting and implementing individualized plans for each one. A specialized Student Support Team builds scholarly habits in students, even if it requires showing up at their homes. Little Scholars Centers provide day care and preschool that is free for students who are also parents. This resource can mean the difference between staying in school and dropping out.

Another part of relentless support is eschewing traditional grade levels based on seat time in favor of a system that allows students to progress at their own pace. The challenges faced by these students — many of whom are older than traditional high schoolers — can cause some to miss chunks of time or have inconsistent attendance records.

Partnerships are a critical ingredient in Phoenix Academies’ success. AmeriCorps workers are part of the Attendance Transformation and Student Support teams and they also work as tutors. The network operates with community groups such as mental health organizations and school districts.

Phoenix’s charter academies have a very positive relationship with surrounding districts. A major reason is because its academies fulfill the late American Federation of Teachers’ President Albert Shanker’s vision of charters as schools that serve those for whom traditional public schools haven’t succeeded.
Chelsea Superintendent Mary Bourque notes that Phoenix offers different resources, such as the on-site day care, (sometimes) smaller class sizes, and the opportunity for students to progress at their own pace. When appropriate, she will refer at-risk students who can benefit from these resources, or who are looking for a different option, to Phoenix.

Phoenix has marshaled a range of resources to successfully walk the tightrope between student support and academic rigor. The network considers their students’ record of getting into and graduating from college to be a very important measure of the students’ and the organization’s success. Nationwide, only 4 percent of alternative programs offer college-level work; Phoenix has had several years in which every graduate went on to post-secondary education.
Emotions on both sides are running high as the November ballot initiative approaches. Still, Phoenix Academies illustrate one of the important innovations that have emerged from the charter school movement, and that not all charters are at odds with their surrounding schools districts.

Thomas Birmingham is a former president of the Massachusetts Senate, coauthor of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, and a senior fellow in education at Pioneer Institute.