Economists teach us that social mobility in the United States is plagued by “stickiness” at each end of the wealth spectrum: if you are born poor, you are likely to stay poor. Similarly, if you are born into wealth, you are likely to stay wealthy. The best way to move from one end of the spectrum to the other? Graduate from college. The Pew Charitable Trust reports, “Having a college degree makes a person more than three times more likely to rise from the bottom of the family income ladder all the way to the top, and makes a person more than four times more likely to rise from the bottom of the family wealth ladder to the top.”
Entering and succeeding in college is hard enough if you’re put into an excellent school as a five-year-old, taught by excellent teachers, and are given an excellent education from kindergarten through 12th grade. Every day, students of all backgrounds struggle to master Fitzgerald and Faulkner, chemistry and cellular respiration. Imagine, then, the difficulty of mastering that same content when you are years older than your peers, when you have struggled to attend or succeed in school in the past, and when you are facing external pressures such as teen pregnancy, English language barriers, and poverty. The Phoenix Network confronts the overwhelming obstacles facing older, high-risk youth head on, and proves that despite age, incoming academic skill level, and outside struggles, all students can graduate from high school and prepare for success in college and in life.
So, how do we do it? We start by combatting the belief that high-risk students should be shuttled into traditional alternative education programs or GED prep programs. Neither consistently prepares students to overcome barriers to economic success, and our society cannot accept educational options that do not put students on the path to college. Cities and neighborhoods across the country, particularly those in high-poverty areas, need students who will graduate from college and return ready to contribute to the growth and vitality of their communities.
Given the lack of consistently successful options for at-risk students, we design, launch, and operate high-quality schools. At each Phoenix school, we partner rigorous academics – a longer school day and year, AP classes, college class dual enrollment options, a strict culture – with wraparound socio-emotional supports for every single student. We develop teachers and leaders who believe in the possibility of human change and growth, and who fight tirelessly for better outcomes for kids. The combination of high academic expectations, relentless support, and the right staff makes it possible for Phoenix schools to be an agent of change for students who deserve success.
But we don’t stop there. While we seek to open many more schools across Massachusetts, with the goal of serving 1,000 students in the coming years, we want our schools to serve as proof of what kids who have been underserved by traditional education options can do when put into an environment of high expectations. As we prove, again and again, that students who have been counted out of the public school system can succeed at a high level, Phoenix defies and ultimately hopes to change traditional perceptions – of legislators, education leaders, teachers, parents, and of students themselves – about what’s possible in alternative education. We believe that system-level change in alternative education can and should happen; our students’ capabilities are simply too awe-inspiring to be ignored any longer.