By Douglas Moser
---- — 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.
Teachers and staff post their names and college alma matters on the doors to encourage students who may not have anyone in their lives with experience getting into and going to college, as well as to suggest potential places to enroll.
Phoenix Charter Academy opened in September 2012, accepting 125 students. This year, they have 168, and plan to expand to 250 and add new and tougher classes.
The largest class has 25 students, but Lahann said the average in each class is 10 to 12 students.
Aviel Rodriguez, 18, had already dropped out of school. After deciding to give Phoenix a shot, he found the teachers and tutors worked to “come at a subject from different sides.”
Phoenix has its challenges. According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the average number of days students are absent is 50, with an attendance rate of 62 percent, compared with an average number of days absent of 11.8 districtwide in Lawrence, with a 93 percent attendance rate.
The state average is 9 days absent per year with an 94.8 percent attendance rate.
Graduation rates are not yet available.
On the MCAS last spring, 70 percent of students scored proficient or higher, a passing mark, on the English portion of the test, the only scores available on the DESE webpage. But that surpasses the scores at Lawrence High, where 66 percent of 10th graders passed the exam. Statewide, 91 percent of students passed.
Lahann said she believed the program takes at least two years with students. “We intentionally did not accept seniors,” she said.
School officials said they want to dispel the idea that Phoenix is a dumping ground for troubled kids the district does not want to deal with. While the goal is to pursue students who have had trouble at and with Lawrence High, the school is an alternative for any student who would perform better in a smaller environment. And enrollment is a choice, not an assignment.
“All these students are here for a reason, and that is they need a small learning environment to prepare for college,” Lahann said.
Many of the students recruited need extra attention to sort through family problems or deal with a teenage pregnancy, while others have behavioral problems or academic failures they trace back to getting lost in the sea of students at Lawrence High or being unable to get help in subjects they struggled through.
Frank McLaughlin, president of the Lawrence Teachers Union, said he wanted to wait until the program had a few years’ worth of data to determine whether bringing in Phoenix is a success here in Lawrence.
But he took issue with bringing in new teachers with fewer rights under the teachers’ contract, and with Riley imposing new pay incentives while Lawrence teachers are working under a contract that expired three years ago.
“I’m not critical of the long hours and I’m not critical of the good work the teachers do at Phoenix. My criticism is the system is flawed because it takes away the teachers’ voice by taking away collective bargaining rights,” he said. “I’m supportive of any program that improves learning. But I’m opposed to losing collective bargaining rights, opposed to using receivership to destroy collect barging rights.”
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