The dual mission of Phoenix Charter Academy—giving second chances to troubled youth and a relentless focus on academics—may seem a mission impossible. It isn’t, but the work to address systemic truancy and high dropout rates in our urban school districts presents numerous individual challenges—as many challenges as there are students. In fact, you can summarize the challenge of reclaiming opportunity for at-risk students as exactly that: It can only be done for a single student, and yet the only way to have real impact is to create some sort of scale. So, you have to engage each student toward individual goals, but you also have to manage the unique needs of very different students in a way that they are part of an overarching purpose.
In this final video interview with the founder of Phoenix Charter Academy, Beth Anderson, I asked her to detail how PCA maintains that common ethos and drives toward commonly set goals while setting individual goals based on the age and background of each student. Anderson’s reply focuses on the options PCA provides for graduation goals and the school’s non-grade-based courses (instead PCA’s courses are credit-bearing in a manner similar to college courses). Through these more flexible mechanisms, PCA is trying to meet the disparate needs of the kids coming in at 15, as well as the needs of kids coming in at 18 years of age or more.
So, for example, PCA allows flexibility based on the specific needs of students, especially for some older kids to choose the goal of entry into two-year colleges. Obviously, some of the older students need to earn a paycheck to support their families. But, on the other hand, all incoming 14- and 15-year-olds have to aim for a four-year college. And PCA takes very seriously the need to support and steer younger students away from personal choices that might make the goal of a four-year college harder to attain. As Anderson notes, in addition to the academic goals set for the students, PCA is building behavioral benchmarks into the curriculum, so that students can mature and make positive choices—and grow to be fully engaged citizens in the real world.
Clearly, Phoenix Charter Academy is not the only public school (whether charter, district or vocational-technical) doing excellent work in the state. Nor is it the only school doing great work with at-risk students. But its mix of supports and high-powered academic work is unique; and its innovation is worth exploring for all schools. The entire series of video interviews with Beth Anderson can be found below.
- The school’s dual mission
- PCA’s use of its physical structure to support the school’s culture
- The role of students and teachers in setting and maintaining the school’s culture
- Retaining great teachers through student achievement