Title: CEO and founder, Phoenix Charter Academy Network
Education: Bachelor of Arts in sociology,Brandeis University, 1991; master’s degree, education, Harvard University Graduate School, 1999
Growing up in Brockton and Carver, Beth Anderson thought she had it somewhat tough as the only child of an ironworker father and supermarket-clerk mother struggling to make ends meet and making sure their daughter would be the first in their family to attend college.
After graduating from Brandeis University in 1991, though, Anderson found out what tough really meant. As a teacher for two years in Los Angeles, Anderson had to deal with kindergarten and elementary students whose parents included active gang members and prostitutes.
Some impoverished children could barely speak English, while other immigrant students had never held a pencil before.
“I will never get over or forget what I saw in Los Angeles,” said Anderson, whose two-year L.A. teaching stint was organized by the nonprofit Teach for America foundation.
Her experience in the City of Angels was the driving force behind her later efforts to start and build what is today’s Chelsea-based Phoenix Charter Academy Network. The nonprofit network now runs two schools in Chelsea and Lawrence for 320 disadvantaged “at-risk” youths between the ages of 14 and 22, employing more than 100 people on a combined budget of about $7 million.
The Chelsea institution, which opened in 2006, is a fully licensed charter school. The Lawrence school, opened in 2012, is run like a charter but technically operated under a state receivership program imposed on the Lawrence school system due to its consistently poor education performance.
This August, Anderson plans to open another charter school in Springfield, also for the same type of students who too often slip through the education-system cracks. The Springfield school will bring the total number of students under the Phoenix umbrella to about 440 and the number of employees to about 130 within a combined $10 million budget.
All along, Anderson said her goal in starting the schools, all three from scratch, has been to “disrupt the status quo” of an education system she believes has all but abandoned many kids from poor and tough backgrounds. Anderson has gone out of her way to recruit students who have previously dropped out of school, have been caught up in the criminal court system or face other challenges almost unimaginable to kids growing up elsewhere.
“I didn’t start the first charter school (in Chelsea) just to start a charter school,” said Anderson, who previously worked as a social worker at Girls Inc., a Lynn nonprofit, and at the predecessor of today’s state Department of Children and Families. “We just want to be the best and give these children a chance.”
And the Phoenix schools demand a lot from their students. Besides strict rules about conduct at schools and the required wearing of school uniforms, students are not expected to get a General Equivalency Diploma — but rather a full high school diploma and to be college-ready by the time they graduate.
There are some academic twists to Phoenix’s approach: Every student ultimately plows ahead at his or her own speed and level. The graduation rate for Phoenix students is about 34 percent, higher than the 22 percent rate attained at traditional “alternative” schools and with Phoenix students getting high school diplomas, not GEDs, Anderson notes.
In many ways, Anderson says running a charter school is similar to running a business — negotiating real estate deals, recruiting and hiring top-notch workers, raising private funds, writing grants, adapting to constant changes. “I sometimes think I have more in common with Boston entrepreneurs than I do with educators,” said Anderson. “You have to keep building, building, building.”
“Beth is the real deal,” said Jeff Meaney, chairman of Phoenix’s board of trustees and head of legal operations at Fidelity Investments. “She’s terrific. She’s a genuine engine of change in the education-reform efforts. You can’t find a bigger fan of Beth than me. She epitomizes exactly what she’s trying to instill in her students — confidence, passion, excellence.”
A number of other school districts around the state have contacted Anderson about starting Phoenix charter schools in their communities, as part of an expansion of the Phoenix approach to teaching disadvantaged youths. Anderson doesn’t rule out an expansion in the future.
But right now, she said he’s committed first to making the Chelsea, Lawrence and Springfield schools work even better. “We’re still perfecting the model,” she said. “We need to be patient and focused.”