Phoenix Academy's first grads are college-bound
Grueling pace for students, staff at East Palo Alto charter school pays off for the 21 graduates
A small charter school in East Palo Alto celebrates the graduation of its first senior class next month.
All 21 seniors at Phoenix Academy in East Palo Alto — with few exceptions the same students who started together as freshmen when the school was founded in 2006 — will head off to college this fall.
In every case, the students represent the first generation in their families to go to college.
In a community where the high school dropout rate is estimated to be between 50 percent and 70 percent, that alone is considered an achievement.
It was earned with the tenacity of students, families and a youthful teaching staff who, students said, would not allow them to fail.
"The teachers are always there," said senior Elizabeth Garcia, who is heading to the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
"Even if you didn't want them to be, they're just there with you, emotionally or academically, with problems at home or at school."
Senior Eden Diaz recalled an evening during his junior year when he faced a deadline to apply for a summer engineering program in Wisconsin.
"Two teachers stayed here with me until 11 at night helping me apply. They had no reason to be here, but they stayed to help me with my essay," Diaz said of English teachers Javier Cabra and Joanna Ho.
"At this school, we're treated more like individuals instead of like a number in a bigger school."
Diaz got into the program in Wisconsin, which he attended, and will begin college this fall at the University of Arizona.
Phoenix Academy is run by Aspire Public Schools, a nonprofit group that operates 21 schools in California, serving more than 6,000 students.
Phoenix began in 2006 when teachers at Aspire's high-performing K-8 East Palo Alto Charter School got tired of their graduates disappearing into various campuses of the Sequoia Union High School District.
"We'd been concerned and confused about what was happening to our kids when they left eighth grade," Phoenix co-founder Thomas Madson said.
"We had no way to track their progress or find out whether they went to college unless they came back and talked to us."
In March 2006 Madson, who was vice-principal at the K-8 school, and then-math teacher Nick Romagnolo invited eighth-grade parents to a meeting.
"We offered three options," Madson recalled.
"We said, 'We can send them to Sequoia and let them be on their own; we can host an after-school tutorial every day to help them with homework and make sure they're on track; or we can open a school focused on academics and getting prepared for college.'
"One parent stood up and said opening a school was the only option. She said if we didn't start a school, her daughter wouldn't graduate from high school."
Madson and Romagnolo approached the Ravenswood City School District for a charter, eventually obtaining charter status from the Sequoia Union High School District.
They opened a makeshift "campus" that fall in a classroom leased from Opportunities Industrialization Center West (OICW), and since have moved to an old warehouse on Bay Road.
Seniors who will graduate next month recalled the early days.
"My parents wanted me to go to this school because the teachers would push us and keep us on track. They were strict," senior Jose Gavan said. "I wanted to go to a regular high school. I didn't want to come here at all because it was too much pressure, too much work. I just wanted to slack off."
He said it wasn't until his junior year that he really wanted to be at Phoenix. He will attend California State University at Chico this fall.
The going has been tough for students and teachers alike, and Phoenix's preliminary results on standardized tests are not nearly as good as its sister K-8 charter.
The school's 2009 API score was 674, well below those of other schools in the Sequoia Union High School District, which range from 740 at Sequoia High School to 827 at Carlmont High School.
But Administrator Mike Berman said those results, for bureaucratic reasons, reflect the scores of only 16 of the school's 80 students.
"If you include all of our students from the 2008-2009 school year, our actual API was 788," Berman said. The average 2009 API score for all California high schools was 714.
A year-old report from the San Mateo County Grand Jury said, "Given the relatively brief time in operation for (Phoenix Academy), meaningful data are not available to assess academic progress at the school."
Seniors tell of the dreaded "Thursday Think Tank," where students who have missed assignments are required to go to complete all missed work, for which no credit is given. The sessions, with teacher supervision, can run until 11 p.m., and then students must go home and complete their regular homework for that night.
"It's to teach us a lesson, like, 'Do your homework or else you're going to have to stay late and not get credit for it,'" said senior Michael Timmons, also headed for Cal State Chico.
If a student is absent, "they call everywhere to find where you are," senior Alma Vazquez said. "They have all the phone numbers — cousins, aunts, uncles — to make sure you're not skipping school."
When it came to college applications, teachers were there for everything, said senior Carla Hernandez, who heads to Wheelock College in Boston this fall.
They obtained free test-prep classes for Phoenix, assisted with financial-aid applications and with college applications. Teachers celebrated when every one of the 21 seniors was admitted to at least one four-year college.
Teacher Joanna Ho, who begins her days at 7 or 7:30 a.m. and often stays on campus until late in the evening, described working at Phoenix as her "dream job."
A graduate of Palo Alto High School and the University of Pennsylvania, with a teaching credential from Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Ho joined the staff after working at Beechwood School, a private elementary school in eastern Menlo Park.
"I love that this is a new school, and I couldn't think of a better staff to work with," she said.
She has imported to Phoenix some features of her Paly education — including a week-long Yosemite trip and a mock trial based on the students' reading of "The Crucible."
"I want to teach and work particularly in an underprivileged community where the educational opportunities are much, much different from the ones I had," she said.
However, Ho — who recently became engaged — acknowledged that the work is draining.
"I'll go home at night and do work for several hours. And kids will call at night, on weekends. It's pretty time-consuming."
The school, located on Bay near Pulgas Avenue, runs nearly year-round, with about a month off in summer. Planning is underway for a new campus targeted to open in the fall of 2011, with support from major donors.
As a handful of seniors gathered a few weeks before graduation, the mood was wistful.
"Our whole school is more like a family, which keeps us from all going our separate ways," Gavan said. Gavan is among nine of graduates heading for Chico this fall. Another three are going to the University of Arizona and two to California State University at Monterey Bay.
"The idea of going far away was a great thing until the reality of what that actually meant set in," Administrator Berman said.
"This whole thing has been a process for us, figuring out how to balance those things. It's exciting but also scary. I'm confident of all of you doing well on those campuses," he told the seniors.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at email@example.com.