Passion and Fellowship

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Massachusetts charter schools have a strong record in serving urban and suburban minorities. What about children who are clearly at-risk or have special needs? Chelsea-based Phoenix Charter Academy (PCA) serves at-risk students from Chelsea, Everett, Lynn, Revere, Winthrop, and Boston. The school’s mission is to give a caring but firm hand up with an eye toward not just keeping kids in school but also preparing them for rigorous academic work at college. PCA’s hybrid mission is the product of its founder, Beth Anderson, who comes to the school with long experience working with teen girls and at Boston’s standout MATCH School.

In a previous post on PCA, Beth summarized how the school establishes and nurtures a culture of personal and academic excellence among a student body that frequently benefits from few, if any, of the usual home support structures. PCA students are often highly truant or even dropouts. They range in age, up to 23. Their academic records are often uneven from even elementary school.

Role models among the students (especially single mothers) have a “multiplier effect” in inspiring peers to keep up a school culture of goals and determination, but it’s PCA’s teachers who set the goals and provide a guiding presence to strengthen students’ determination when it flags. There are shorthands that people in education use to describe key qualities in great teachers–and though it is overused “passion” is right near the top of the list.

Passion is sometimes a euphemism for “lots of hours.” And there are people who like to suggest that charter schools owe their success simply to more hours on the job. That is decidedly not true as can be seen from the so far spotty success of extended day learning even here in Massachusetts.

At PCA, it means teachers who are passionate and knowledgeable about their academic subjects, and committed to the success of the mission, the students, and the school. With teachers putting their all into taking PCA’s students to college readiness, there’s a risk of burnout among even the very best and most passionate teachers.

I asked Beth to share lessons she’s learned about how teacher retention. Beth’s view has changed over time: She is increasingly placing emphasis on making sure teachers have room in their schedules to step back and breathe–to think through classroom dynamics and how best to address individual needs. PCA has tried to address teachers’ needs as well: So now teachers are allowed to bring their own children to the child care center. That is a relief to the teachers at PCA who are also mothers of young children). Finally, there is now a concerted effort to thank and celebrate PCA teachers and their successes in changing young lives.

However important complementing culture-building among students with culture-building among teachers is (and it is!), Beth notes that a big piece of PCA’s success and the “teachers’ staying power” is their passion for teaching and for the PCA mission.

Phoenix Charter Academy: Teacher Retention from Mike Dean on Vimeo.

In PCA’s third year, Beth recognized the need to intensify student-teacher interactions in order to show faster improvements in student achievement. Perhaps a simpler way to put this is: PCA is dealing with big challenges. Sometimes teachers can get frustrated if they are individually putting lots of time in, but the pace of progress among the students is slower than they hope. (Some high schools that try to telescope years of remediation and new learning into four years have seen higher teacher burnout.) So, to keep teachers’ level of energy and commitment up, it was necessary to show faster progress on academic measures.

During Beth’s years at the MATCH Charter School, she saw the impact on student achievement and test scores of MATCH’s intensive tutoring program. That’s when Beth decided to import the tutoring program concept, albeit at a level of 15-20 tutors at PCA versus the 70-plus tutors at MATCH. Currently, the PCA Fellowship Program is supported by organizations like AmeriCorps. The PCA Fellows add time-on-subject, provide one-on-one or small group tutoring, teach classes on responsible decision-making for at-risk students, and run French clubs, sports programs and more.

As is the case with the MATCH tutoring program, the PCA Fellows live nearby in the Our Lady of Grace lodgings.

Phoenix Charter Academy: The Fellowship & Tutoring Program from Mike Dean on Vimeo.

Teacher and staff commitment to the school mission of excellence. The fellows program that further strengthens the school’s intensive academic focus. When you walk into PCA, you can actually feel that everyone is working toward the same purpose. As noted previously, it’s not the beautiful old walls of the Our Lady of Grace complex on Nichols Street that make the school, but rather the “vibe” inside the building. It’s what’s on the walls–the focus on learning. It’s the common culture and mission among the adults–which makes it a lot easier for the students to buy into the possibility that they, too, can meet the expectations.

Given what’s going on in their lives, PCA’s students would not easily get their on their own. And each student’s trajectory at the school is going to be unique. And each student’s trajectory at the school is going to be unique. And that’s what tomorrow’s final post on PCA will discuss: I’ll be sharing a video of Beth’s insights on how PCA sets clear overarching goals for students, but also allows for unique milestones to be set and tracked for each.

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