Phoenix Academy, a charter public high school group that already has a relationship with Lawrence public schools, has been chosen by the state to move forward with an application to open a new school for students across the Merrimack Valley.
Currently, Phoenix Academy operates regional charter public high schools in Chelsea and Springfield that serve students in grades nine through 12. In Lawrence, the group operates Phoenix Academy Lawrence, an in-district public high school run through an agreement with the public school district. The school opened in 2012 and takes in students who have not succeeded in traditional school settings. It focuses on putting them on a path to finishing high school and going on to college.
Phoenix Academy wants to open a new school in the region that would serve 250 high school students from Lawrence, Methuen and Haverhill. The group, along with the Equity Lab Charter School proposed for Lynn that would serve 640 students in grades five through 12, have been invited to submit full applications for a charter to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
“I look forward to seeing more details about these two proposals in coming weeks and hearing from the communities that they would serve,” said Jeff Wulfson, acting elementary and secondary education commissioner for the state.
John Connors, chairman of the Phoenix Board, and Beth Anderson, founder of Phoenix Public Charter Schools, said in a statement their group was pleased to be able to move forward in the process of securing another charter.
“The Phoenix model has proven to be a valued partner in the Lawrence Public Schools' work with young people, particularly students who have struggled in other school settings. We want to continue and evolve this successful partnership with the Lawrence community — and we believe we can partner with Haverhill and Methuen to strengthen support for off-track students,” the statement said.
Phoenix and Equity Lab were selected from an initial group of eight charter school applications — four groups seeking to open new charter schools and four already established charter schools looking to expand enrollment. Among the initial applicants was another group seeking to open in the Merrimack Valley — Massachusetts Wildflower Montessori Charter School, which hoped to open an elementary school in Haverhill.
Jacqueline Reis, spokeswoman for DESE, said Wildflower was not selected to move forward to the next step in the application process because the group “did not adequately address the majority of the criteria required at the prospectus stage.” For example, she said, Wildflower did not provide enough evidence to “establish the necessary capacity and adequate planning to implement the proposed education program.”
Frances McLaughlin, who is part of the group behind the Wildflower application, said the group was “disappointed,” by the state's decision but is not giving up on efforts to open a school in Haverhill.
“We know it works, and we certainly know there is a need for more high-performing schools and school models in Haverhill,” McLaughlin said.
As Wildflower reevaluates its position, Phoenix Academy is moving forward with its plans for a charter public high school with the support of Lawrence public schools. Christopher Markuns, spokesman for Lawrence schools, said previously that should the charter school's application be successful, it would close as a Lawrence public school and reopen as a charter also serving students from Haverhill and Methuen.
“This is an anticipated but welcome step,” Markuns said of Phoenix advancing in the process. “There's still a lengthy process ahead, and Phoenix will continue to have our support.”
As a group that already operated two charter schools, Phoenix Academy only had to submit a letter of intent to apply for an additional charter at the beginning of the process. Now, the group will have to produce a full application that includes the school's operating budget, curriculum scope and sequence, recruitment and retention plan, and enrollment policy.
Final charter applications are due to the state by Nov. 1. They will then be evaluated by department staff and external review panelists, and go through public hearings in the areas where the groups are proposing schools. Wulfson will then review and make a recommendation on the applications to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, with a vote in February 2018 on whether they should receive charters.
As they move through the next steps of the process, Connors and Anderson said in their statement that they hoped to continue the types of working relationships they built in Lawrence, Chelsea and Springfield with Haverhill and Methuen.
“The Phoenix model combines rigorous academics — high expectations married to positive youth development, a longer school day and year, college options, a strong culture — with uncompromising wraparound socio-emotional supports for every single student. In addition, Phoenix develops teachers and leaders who believe in the possibility of human change and growth, and who fight tirelessly for better outcomes for kids,” their statement said.
“This combination of rigor, support, and inventive, pace-setting staff makes Phoenix schools an agent of change for students who deserve success," the statement continued.
Follow Lisa Kashinsky on Twitter @lisakash23.