Mother Courage

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Earlier this week, I shared a couple of videos introducing the Chelsea-based Phoenix Charter Academy (PCA). PCA is unique in that it focuses on getting at-risk students back working at school, but also insists on high-quality academic achievement. The academic culture at PCA is critical to the school’s success, and in order to establish a culture of learning, there has to be a foundational behavioral culture of order, respect and rules.

In order to get to that point, PCA seeks to provide a base of support for its students that will give them room to focus on academics. The goal is not just to stay in school, but to meet and beating academic and behavioral expectations. PCA’s in-school support ranges from childcare on the premises to intensive tutoring and academic encouragement; out-of-school support ranges from constant contact with students to follow-up with parents and loved ones in order to identify and deal with issues at home and in their communities. PCA works to develop highly individualized plans to get students into college and to succeed there.

The school’s founder, Beth Anderson, describes the two pillars for setting and maintaining a culture of excellence at PCA: a core student group and targeted teacher recruitment and selection.

At PCA, Beth sees single mothers as the “keepers” of the school’s culture. It’s the single mothers who latch onto the promise of PCA and help the entire school set the tone of hard work, focus and achievement. The school is committed to supporting students in every way possible, and to giving students every opportunity to stay focused and to move toward their academic goals. In addition to the positive motivations, PCA recognizes that single mothers have more at stake. The school provides these mothers all of the strong supports available to other students, plus on-site childcare.

The school is clear-eyed, however, in communication the reality and challenge before the mothers: PCA readily shares research underscoring the correlation between low educational attainment of parents and the number of children later becoming single teenage parents.

With their children depending on them, the mothers at PCA are especially driven. And with their drive, their assumption of responsibility and commitment, they serve as a role model for other students at PCA.

Phoenix Charter Academy: Culture and the Role of Mothers from Mike Dean on Vimeo.

You’ve read about PCA’s mission, and therefore can grasp the importance to students and teachers of a clearly defined culture and set of expectations. On the academic side of the ledger, PCA does not aim simply to get the kids to graduate high school. They aim for real academic coursework built on strong acquisition of numeracy and literacy skills. For some students, that requires establishing a culture of learning that is foreign—a culture of believing they can do it and insisting that they succeed.

How do you plant and nurture a culture in a school, especially among students for whom skepticism and sometimes even cynicism are more the norm? How do you set and maintain the culture when some of the students are from backgrounds that often are hard to imagine, or when the backgrounds are so divergent as to make a common starting culture hard to find? As Beth makes clear, the role of teachers and, therefore, teacher selection, is critical to establishing a culture of excellence. The teachers have to be fired up by the challenge and by the mission. For Beth, that means going back to those teacher recruitment and prep organizations that have borne the best results in the past, such as Teach for America, the MATCH Teacher Residency and other organizations that inculcate a relentless focus on student success.

Phoenix Charter Academy: Maintaining the Culture from Mike Dean on Vimeo.

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.