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January 2, 2014

Phoenix on the rise in Lawrence

Charter school works to keep teens in school, headed toward college

LAWRENCE — Lots of people told Destiny Clarke she would drop out of high school.

Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, she said she couldn’t sit through class all day long.

“I wasn’t in school,” she said. “I was enrolled, but not going. I showed up at 9, and then left.”

Eventually she began to believe she’d drop out. “I thought that was going to be my life,” she said.

Last year, she heard about a new school opening in Lawrence, a one-of-a-kind in Massachusetts. Phoenix Charter Academy, a non-profit based in Chelsea, was invited to open a new public district-controlled school under Superintendent/Receiver Jeffrey Riley’s turnaround plan.

Clarke, now 17 and on track to graduate this spring with an eye toward college, said the extra attention from teachers and a much smaller environment, along with services like a cool-off room to talk through problems, longer breaks, and freedom to go outside for air, helped keep her in school.

“That motivates me now,” she said, recalling even people close to her telling her she wouldn’t make it. “I’m going to do it.”

Phoenix Academy Lawrence, located in the Everett Mill Building on Union Street, is a four-year college preparatory high school operated by the Phoenix Charter Academy Network, which runs a charter school in Chelsea. It follows the state curriculum, but has a longer school day, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The school has 13 teachers, a dozen AmeriCorps fellows who tutor, two deans who teach and a large group of student support staff that includes a social worker, day care, and guidance counselors, said Olivia Lahann, head of Phoenix Academy Lawrence and the founder of the program here.

Staff also helps connect families with food, shelter and health care services to make sure home needs are met, which school officials believe is one of the biggest roadblocks to students succeeding in school.

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