Comeback kids

At Phoenix Charter Academy in Chelsea, former dropouts aim high

JAZZMIN HERNANDEZ DOESN’T fit anybody’s profile of a likely high school graduate, never mind a soon-to-be college student.

When she was 10, she and her older brother spent two years in foster care as their mother battled drug addiction. By the time she was in high school, Hernandez was back home with her mom, but in a bad relationship where she suffered domestic abuse at the hands of her boyfriend. She felt increasingly isolated at Revere High School. She got pregnant, and after Averyanna was born, Hernandez and her daughter were kicked out of her home by her mother, with whom her relationship had become increasingly strained.Jazzmin Hernandez doesn’t fit anybody’s profile of a likely high school graduate, never mind a soon-to-be college student.

Hernandez dropped out of school and stayed with friends for several months before getting her own apartment. She worked three jobs, putting in 80 hours a week to make ends meet. After three years out of school, however, she knew she was going to have a hard time keeping her head above water on low-wage service jobs, to say nothing of having little chance of getting beyond subsistence wages to give herself and her daughter a better life.

That’s when someone told Hernandez about an alternative high school in Chelsea that offered a solid curriculum for students who had dropped out. What’s more, Phoenix Charter Academy had an onsite child care center, so she and Averyanna could head off to school together each day. Last year, Hernandez decided to take the plunge.

“I was nervous,” she says. “My test scores were horrible. I could not read out loud without messing up the whole time. And then I met Mr. Chen,” she says of Yu Chen, a humanities teacher at Phoenix with whom she developed a quick bond. “He knew my background, he knew my story. And he didn’t just take that as an, OK, we’re just going to excuse you for everything. It was more of a reason to challenge me.”

In June, Hernandez was one of 29 students at Phoenix who received their high school diplomas. The poised 22-year-old has become a straight-A student, while holding down two part-time jobs and caring for her daughter. And she’s now on her way to the bachelor’s degree program at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.
‘When did it become OK to say to a kid who’s dropped out, I won’t expect as much from you?’
What she has done shows “the resilience and emotional willpower our kids have,” says Chen. “These are students that people really don’t have many expectations for, but if you give them the right structure and set a high bar, they will rise up to meet the challenge.”

Hernandez’s story is one that the school hopes to repeat with all those who arrive at Phoenix. The eight-year-old charter school has set out to show that young people facing all sorts of hurdles—dropouts, court-involved youth with criminal records, recent immigrants with limited English skills, and those in the state foster care system—can not only get back on track and finish high school, but can do so at a school with high expectations that gets them ready for the rigors of college studies.

It’s a high bar in the world of alternative education, which for years was more of a dumping ground of diminished expectations than a place to give students the structure and support to try to aim as high as other young people.

The message students get from their first day is, “we’re going to hold you to the expectations that good schools and great schools hold their kids to, because we care about you that much,” says Phoenix founder Beth Anderson. “When did it become OK to say to a kid who’s poor or who has dropped out or who is having significant challenges inside a poor system, I won’t expect as much from you even though I know that those expectations and meeting them are critical to you being successful?”

Phoenix is expanding to deliver its high-expectations model to other Massachusetts communities. In Lawrence, where the chronically struggling school district was put in the hands of a state-appointed receiver two years ago, Phoenix was asked to open a school for dropouts as part of the district turnaround plan. Meanwhile, the organization will open a second charter school this fall, in Springfield.

There is little future in today’s economy for someone without a college degree or some type of post-secondary training, never mind for someone who hasn’t finished high school. “The world is increasingly unforgiving of dropping out, and is nearing intolerance,” says Paul Harrington, director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University.

Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which coordinates education and workforce training for Boston youth, says dropping out can be likened to “economic suicide.”

College graduates earn three times as much over their lifetime as a high school dropout, and the Boston area economy, with its focus on knowledge-based industries, creates a particularly wide gulf between the education haves and have-nots.

Meanwhile, a recent Brookings Institution report spotlighted just how grim the trajectory has been for the have-nots. According to the study, a black male born in 1975 who failed to complete high school had a nearly 70 percent of chance of having served time in jail by the time he reached his mid-30s.

Against that bleak backdrop, Jeff Riley, the appointed school receiver in Lawrence, where fewer than half of all students were graduating at the time of the state takeover, says tackling the dropout problem is not just an important challenge, but “a moral obligation.”


It’s a Monday morning, and the week is not starting well for Christian Morales. He’s in Andrea Cioffi’s geometry class at Phoenix, where she is trying to get students to focus on the difference between area and volume. Fidgety and defiant, Morales keeps ignoring Cioffi’s request to pull up his pants, which are in full sag mode, a dress violation at the school. Morales is quick with a quip, in a way that shows he’s a sharp thinker—and a frequent challenge when it comes to corralling his energy into more productive pursuits.

Cioffi tells him she’ll have to send him out of the room if he can’t conform to the school’s dress code, which also requires students to wear khaki pants and a fleece or t-shirt with the school’s name and logo. Before she can, however, he grows frustrated and storms out himself.

Cioffi, in her fifth year teaching at Phoenix, picks up the phone on the wall to report that he has left class, and returns to the lesson, barely missing a beat. Now it’s up to someone from the school’s student support center to intercept him and try to get Morales settled and focused enough to return to class.

At the end of the week, as they do each Friday morning, the whole school gathers in the ground floor cafeteria in the handsome three-story stone building, the former home of a Catholic parish elementary school. The weekly community meeting is one of many ways that Phoenix, with its 225 students, doesn’t feel like one of the massive district high schools where many of its students previously fell between the cracks. The gathering offers students and staff the chance to offer public apologies for anything that happened that week that they now regret as well as shout-outs to anyone they want to recognize for praise in front of the whole community.

After a few shout-outs and an apology from one teacher to her class for getting sidetracked during a lesson, Cioffi stands up and says she wants to offer a shout-out to Christian Morales. “He had a really strong week,” she says, describing how he was one of the first to understand many problems his geometry class worked on and was diligent about completing assignments.

It was a welcome bookend to a week with a rough start for Morales. But it’s the sort of study in contrast that happens regularly at the school, which demands strict compliance with rules, but is all about redemption and second chances.

A few days later, Morales isn’t dwelling on all the run-ins he’s had with his teacher. “Ms. Cioffi—she’s helped me a lot,” he says. “When I’m mad, I can go in there and take my frustration out on a math problem.”

Cioffi says the strapping 16-year-old has real strengths in math. He also has plenty of things to get angry about. He’s been in state foster care for four years, ever since his mom, an overwhelmed single parent of seven, gave up her custody rights. He bounced among Boston foster homes in East Boston, Dorchester, and Roslindale, and was on the receiving end of threats from gang members who were after his older brother. The turmoil has all contributed to the anxiety and depression Morales is now getting help for.

Amidst the chaos of constant moves, and with no steady adult presence in his life, school was hard for Morales to stick with. Eighth grade is the last full school year he completed. Morales says he felt totally lost in ninth grade at East Boston High School. “It was just so crowded,” he says of the school of nearly 1,400 students. “They never had a handle on anything.”

Jazzmin Hernandez and her daughter Averyanna. “I knew coming back to
school opened doors for her as well as me.”

He says the close-knit Phoenix community and a new foster home in Chelsea have both made a huge difference. “This school has been an amazing experience,” he says. “I feel like this is my second chance at life and I don’t want to give it up. I don’t plan on leaving here ’til I graduate.”

How long that might take, however, is unclear. By early June, a set of serious issues that he was dealing with began taking a toll, and Morales disappeared from school.

Though he hasn’t been in school as the year winds down, Morales hasn’t severed the ties he quickly forged at Phoenix and the trust he developed in adults there. He has been “texting Phoenix staff, saying, ‘I want to come back. I care about graduating,’” says Anderson.

She says these sorts of fits and starts with the high-need population Phoenix serves probably occur at some point with at least half the students who enroll at the school. It’s why the model is designed to keep in touch with and not give up on kids other schools would write off and, often all too gladly, scratch from their rolls.

Anderson says the school is working on getting Morales to return in the fall. “We’re going to get him back,” she says.

While critics accuse charter schools of skimming the best students from district systems—something charter leaders strongly deny —no one could ever level that charge at Phoenix. It is one of just a handful of Massachusetts charter schools explicitly focused on educating those who have in many ways been relegated to the bottom of the education heap, the castoffs who have struggled in traditional schools or, in some cases, been thrown out of them or not allowed in because of their age or other issues. And it’s the only one that has made college-readiness so central to its mission.

“I really think of it as the Statue of Liberty: Give us your tired, your hungry masses,” says Kacy Robinson, a teaching coach at Phoenix who will take over as acting head of the school in the fall. “Give ‘em to us. We really think we can serve their needs. Let us go for it.”

The demographics of the school read like a check-list of students often pegged as likely to fail. Of the school’s 225 students, 91 percent are black or Hispanic. More than two-thirds are former dropouts or near-dropouts (38 percent had quit school and 30 percent had major truancy problems). Almost half are court-involved, and 14 percent are pregnant or, like Jazzmin Hernandez, already parenting a child. Overall, 81 percent are from low-income households, while 23 percent are English language learners, and 24 percent are special needs students.

Anderson, who now oversees the network of three Phoenix schools, is a feisty 45-year-old who gets even more animated when she talks about the disservice she says American education has done to kids like this. “In a world that says ‘No child left behind,’ Phoenix is saying, well, you left some behind. So we’re going to pick them up,” she says. “We’re at least going to give them that chance.”

Students working on group math projects in Anne Gridneva’s Algebra 2 class. Phoenix students must earn a C or better in a course
to pass.

Anderson taught for two years following college in a tough inner-city Los Angeles school through the Teach for America program. “That pretty much set the course for the rest of my life,” she says of the zeal with which she pursues connecting kids who have been shunted to the margins with a challenging, first-rate education.

“Beth’s contribution to the sector has been quite tremendous in terms of developing a college preparatory alternative school,” says Cliff Chuang, director of the state education department’s charter school office, which oversees Phoenix.

Unlike some charter schools, Phoenix has unusually good relations with nearby district systems.

“Traditional American high schools are expected to address all the individual needs of every student. For us, that’s a hard bar to reach,” says Mary Bourque, superintendent of the Chelsea public schools. Chelsea is not alone. Few traditional high schools are set up to serve the complicated needs of students like those at Phoenix. Bourque says she’s “not a huge fan of charter schools.” But Phoenix, she says, to which Bourque regularly refers students who are having trouble at Chelsea High, is different. “What I love about Phoenix is they help us with a group that is high-risk and high-need that we haven’t had the ability to give those intensive wrap services to. I can’t say enough about them,” she says.


A 2010 report by Jobs for the Future, a national Boston-based nonprofit focused on education and workforce training issues, offered a harsh assessment of alternative education programs generally. “Too often,” it said, “alternative schools operate under antiquated policy that treats them as second-rate settings for the non-college bound.”

Phoenix opened in 2006 with the goal of upending that idea. “Alternative schools for ages have been filled with great people who love kids,” says Anderson. “But love doesn’t put you in college. High expectations put you in college. That’s what has been missing.”

The school has a rich curriculum that now includes AP classes in English and physics, and higher-level math courses, including algebra 2, trigonometry, pre-calculus, and calculus. The school day goes from 9 am to 5 pm, with longer class periods than traditional schools. And students must earn a C grade or better in a course to pass. Letting kids squeak by, says Anderson, is selling a false bill of goods that only sets them up for future failure.
The demographics of the school read like a check-list of students often pegged as likely to fail.
Though most students enter the school several grades behind in basic English and math skills, the focus on rigorous academics and high standards has paid off with good results on the state MCAS exam. On the 2013 test, 71 percent of Phoenix students scored proficient or higher in English, while 57 percent scored proficient or better in math. The numbers certainly aren’t on par with wealthy suburbs, but are very comparable to those for the Chelsea district, where proficiency rates were 74 percent for English and 57 percent for math.

The school recognizes the steep challenge it has put in front of its students, and it deploys an army of adults who are ready to help them meet the high standards that Phoenix has set. Class sizes average 12 to 15 students. Along with 17 classroom teachers, the school has three people on its student support team dealing with discipline and other non-academic issues, two people focused on attendance and retention, two full-time social workers, and two staff members who work on college counseling and providing support to Phoenix graduates once in college. Since 2010, Phoenix has also had a team of freshly-minted college graduates who serve one-year stints as tutors through the federal AmeriCorps program. This year, there are 29 AmeriCorps tutors at the school.

The extensive support and staffing at Phoenix, including added academic tutoring, post-graduation counseling and social work services, are all features that have been identified as key to effective alternative schools.

The school’s four-year graduation rate is just 18.3 percent, a figure that bumps up to 20.6 percent if students are allotted five years to graduate. Phoenix leaders say their rate suffers because so many students go through the sorts of false starts that Christian Morales is experiencing, with lots of them leaving the school and returning after a period of time, with that cycle sometimes repeating several times until schooling finally “sticks.” The state education department figures also include in the school’s count students who register but only show up for a few days or weeks before vanishing, something Phoenix says is not unusual.

Lea Marie Pastore: “I’m not used to having people help me.”

The school says measuring student outcomes after six years is a more reasonable benchmark. Phoenix says its six-year graduation rate is 35 percent after dropping those who enrolled but attended for less than a full 45-day quarter. Anderson says Phoenix could have a higher rate if it eased off its standards, especially the requirement that students earn a C or higher to pass a course, but she says that would be “counter to our mission.”

Though it can be struggle to keep Phoenix students attending school every day, it’s not for lack of effort by the school. The school’s retention team, aided by a group of the AmeriCorps tutors, focuses intently on student attendance, with almost nothing out of bounds in terms of what they’ll do to make regular attendees out of students who may have spent years floating in and out of schools with only minimal attention paid to their truancy.

“We’re relentless in our efforts. We will keep on trying to get in touch with you,” says Emma Brazo, who is part of the student retention team. “I’m going to keep showing up. I’m going to keep calling. I’m going to stay on top of you.”

Lea Marie Pastore can attest to that first-hand. “They don’t take no for an answer. If you do not come to school, they will come to your house,” she says. “Trust me.” In a scene not uncommon at Phoenix, Pastore says she was roused from bed one morning last year by Phoenix staff members at her doorstep after she got weary from school and the full-time job she was holding down and her attendance started slacking.

Pastore, who says a lot of painful family issues turned her into something of a walking powder keg, first dropped out of high school in 2005, and then found herself expelled from a succession of five more high schools for fighting and other infractions.

“I’ve done the tour,” says Pastore, now 25. “I was out of control, fought a lot. When I would go to class, if you looked at me the wrong way—teacher, student—I would just hit you,” she says, leaning in with a no-nonsense look that makes a listener not doubt her word.

She got caught up in drug activity, and says she was “looking at jail time” when she was told her only alternative would be to return and finish high school. “I didn’t think about my future,” she says. “I was so much into the streets, and the streets ate me alive.”

Pastore, who started at Phoenix last year, got suspended at the beginning of this last school year. “I had a scuffle with some student,” she says. But she came back and was determined to graduate this spring. “I’m doing it, even though there’s bumps and struggles,” says Pastore, who has made the school honor roll.

Like many Phoenix students, she latched on to a staff member whom she has come to lean on for support. Anderson calls the rich relationships the school fosters the “secret sauce” that makes the high expectations and other components of the school work. For Pastore, that go-to person has been Andrew McGuinness, one of the student support specialists at the school.

“No matter what, he’ll bend back for you,” she says. “Nobody in other schools has ever done that. It’s crazy because I don’t know how to react. How do I even say thank you? I’m not used to having people help me. So he’s my main man. Honestly, if it wasn’t for him this year, and pushing me through, I don’t think I would be able to graduate.”

For a lot of Phoenix students, the support they get at the school can be jarring.

‘We need to imagine the scale of the solution because we’ve proven we can do something about it.’ Jay Grullon’s mom died of a drug overdose when she was young, and her father got deported to the Dominican Republic. She was adopted when she was three, but Grullon, who is gay, says she felt increasingly estranged from her adopted family, which was disapproving of her, and she left home.

“The second I walked in everybody was just showing me support and love, and it was just crazy, because I wasn’t used to that,” Grullon says of her arrival at Phoenix last year. “And I’m not talking about, you know, patting my shoulder, but like that hard love. Telling me right from wrong type of things. And I needed that. I needed that type of guidance in my life, because nobody ever gave me that,” says Grullon, who is 20 and dropped out of Lynn English High School when she was 15. She is on track to graduate next year.

Phoenix subscribes to the “no excuses” philosophy that guides a lot of higher-performing charter schools that don’t cater to special populations like the Chelsea school. But the no-excuses approach, which says poverty or other challenges in a student’s life shouldn’t be a crutch to justify subpar academic performance, isn’t the same as “sink or swim.”

“For me, no excuses is more about the adults than the kids,” Anderson says of the demands the school makes of staff members to work every angle that might help a student decide it’s worth the effort to bear down and make it through. “I don’t think taking a kid who wants to succeed and can’t break a pattern and figuring out how to get them there is making excuses. I would actually argue allowing that kid to fail and not come to school would be the excuse.”


With only a few weeks to go in the school year, the 29 Phoenix students making up the school’s class of 2014 are eagerly anticipating the big moment, with some literally counting the days. “I graduate in 24 days,” says Pastore one afternoon in mid-May. “It feels awesome. And, honestly, if it wasn’t for this school, I would be in jail.”

Instead, she plans to be at Bunker Hill Community College in the fall, with dreams of eventually transferring to a four-year school. Pastore, who maintains a tough veneer, has to catch herself as she relates the moment a few days earlier when she told her mom she would graduate and go on to Bunker Hill. “She cried,” says Pastore, cracking a thin smile. “She didn’t think I was going to do it.”

Of this year’s graduating class—the school’s largest since it opened in 2006—all but five are heading to two- or four-year colleges. “Some are very excited,” says Aaron Spencer, one of the school’s two college guidance counselors. “Some are also very nervous.”

Along with the high academic standards Phoenix maintains, the school requires that every student apply to college and have at least one acceptance in order to graduate. Of the last three graduating classes, 81 percent enrolled in a two- or four-year college.

The school says it is still developing its tracking system to follow college completion results among its graduates—130 in all, including this year’s class. But Phoenix has followed the percentage of its graduates persisting in college after their first year. The one-year year college persistence rate for Phoenix’s class of 2012 was 70 percent. For class of 2007 graduates of Boston public schools, which includes those from its regular district high schools as well as graduates of the city’s selective exam schools such as Boston Latin, the one-year college persistence rate was 81 percent, according to a report issued last year by The Boston Foundation.

“If we’re 10 points off from Boston, I’ll take that,” says Anderson.


As grim as the economic outlook is for dropouts, the good news is that the number of young people making it through to graduation has been on a steady upswing, with correspondingly fewer leaving high school before finishing. Nationally, the high school graduation rate has reached 80 percent for the first time, while in Massachusetts it now stands at 85 percent.

That has translated to big reductions in dropouts, with the number of young people quitting high school in Massachusetts falling from more than 10,000 a decade ago to just over 6,200 during the 2012-13 school year.

In Boston, which accounted for nearly 20 percent of the state’s annual dropouts, a consortium of education, government, and nonprofit organizations issued a call 10 years ago to address the city’s dropout problem. A report the group released, “Too Big to Be Seen: The Invisible Drop¬out Crisis in Boston and America,” said the scale of the problem was enormous, but it had seemed intractable for so long that it was not getting the attention it deserved. Since then, focused efforts by the city’s schools and nonprofit partners have led to a remarkable halving of the number of Boston high school students who drop out each year.

What we need now, says Sullivan, the Boston Private Industry Council director and a member of the Boston consortium, is greater capacity to serve the most hardcore young people who still teeter on the brink of leaving school or who have already left despite the heightened efforts being directed at the problem.

A decade ago, he says, “we couldn’t acknowledge the scale of the problem because we couldn’t imagine the solution. We didn’t think we could do anything about it. Now we need to imagine the scale of the solution because we’ve proven we can do something about it.”

In 2010, the state won a five-year, $15 million federal grant to support dropout prevention and “recovery” efforts to get those who have already dropped out back on track toward graduation. At the same time, however, the line item in the state budget to provide additional aid to alternative schools has been cut dramatically, from $1.5 million in 2006 to less than $150,000 each year since 2010, according to a report on alternative education released in June by the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy.

Anderson is eager to be part of the greater capacity Sullivan says is needed. She hopes the Phoenix expansion to Lawrence and Springfield can also help change the thinking about alternate schools so they are seen as places where students can reach as high as their counterparts in traditional schools. Phoenix wants to be “the disruptor in alternate education,” she says.

Meanwhile, along with her community college studies, Pastore says she wants to pay forward what Phoenix did for her by serving as a mentor there in the fall. “I’ll probably come in like twice a week, and take one student and talk to them, so they know there’s somebody there, they’re not forgotten about,” she says. “Because if you feel like you’re forgotten, it sucks. I was one of those people.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

For her part, Jazzmin Hernandez, who is gearing up for the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, sees her accomplishments as a double-victory.

“I want my daughter to have options. I knew coming back to school and graduating opened doors for her as well as me,” says Hernandez. “I didn’t have those role models in my life. Children don’t follow what their parents say; they follow what they do.”