The students of Phoenix Collegiate Academy are used to high expectations.
“Our students come to school at 7:30. They’re late if they’re there at 7:31,” said Rachel Bennett Yanof, the charter school’s executive director.
Parents are called if their kids arrive at school wearing incomplete uniforms. Detention is given to students who refuse to engage during class time. Preparing students to succeed in college and to be community leaders is the south Phoenix school’s mission.
“The reality is, statistically, only one in 10 kids even goes to college, and so few of them even graduate,” she said. “So how do we make it so that every kid has an opportunity and that those kids that choose (to go to college) have 100 percent success rates?”
The brightly colored school, located on Central Avenue north of Southern, is a former bowling alley that also was a thrift store for a time. It opened in mid-2009, six months after receiving its charter. The school started with 70 sixth graders and a full-time staff of five plus two part-timers.
“My colleague and I who were the two that weren’t teaching full-time, we did the breakfast. We did the trash removal, you know all that stuff,” Yanof said.
The school will educate almost 600 students in grades K-12 next year, with graduating seniors for the first time. The 30-or-so seniors expected to graduate have told Yanof they plan to continue to college and have taken college-entrance exams. Some of these future graduates have been at the school for seven years.
“It’ll be a really awesome day, a lot of crying, but a really awesome day,” Yanof said.
DEMOGRAPHICS DO NOT EQUAL DESTINY
While at Georgetown University, Yanof felt she was in a “microcosm of extreme wealth.” During her senior year in 2003, Yanof took a class that set her career path.
While in the class, Yanof began to wonder, “How is it that some kids are born in a certain zip code and have this kind of life, and some kids are born in this zip code and don’t?”
From her exploration of that question came Phoenix Collegiate Academy’s tagline: “demographics do not determine destiny,” Yanof said. “It is insanely hard to do, but everyday that’s what we’re doing.”
The typical PCA student comes from a single, working parent household with multiple siblings and is living at or below the poverty line. Ninety-seven percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches and half of the elementary school students are English-language learners, Yanof said.
NOT A MINUTE WASTED
Teachers utilize as many minutes of the school day as possible with students – including time spent waiting to use the restroom. While waiting in the hallway, students recite math facts or read. This adds up to 20 minutes of extra learning time per day, Yanof said.
Also, students do not move from classroom to classroom, as is typical in junior high and high school settings. Instead, the teachers rotate classrooms while students stay put in a single homeroom.
“Instead of moving 300 kids around which takes — even for the best school — at least three minutes to get everyone to move and then a minute to get settled and started again, and then a minute at the end of class to pack up, so you’re losing five minutes per passing period,” she said.
Yanof is particularly proud of the school’s class schedule. Each day, PCA students have two periods each of literacy and math, as well as one period of science and one of history. “That’s arguably double than what most schools can do in a given day with literacy, math and science and social studies,” she said.
Twenty-five to 30 percent of students stay after school for tutoring on any given day. The extra time is necessary to use “extremely effective” small-group tutoring, Yanof said. “We have a culture of ‘whatever it takes’ and so our families sign on for that.”
And the ability to implement programs such as after school and Saturday instruction — based on the “whatever it takes” attitude — is a place where Yanof distinguishes the academy from other charter schools and district schools. The small size of her school’s administration is an advantage here.
“The challenge is that often districts — for very pragmatic reasons — someone centrally has to decide how the money is used, and then schools don’t have a lot of flexibility to adjust,” Yanof said. “The nice thing about being a small charter school is we have a lot of flexibility. We get the Title I money, we talk with the whopping three principals, and we decide what’s the best program for your students and your staff.”
Phoenix Collegiate Academy is free to attend and uniforms for elementary students are acquired through donations. Afterschool activities are also provided free to students through tax credits and donations to the school.
“We work really hard to make sure that our school is as accessible, as free and as anything as any district school would be,” Yanof said.
Preparing kids for a lifetime of success is Phoenix Collegiate Academy’s goal.
“Every single student we serve is a student who, statistically, shouldn’t succeed in those ways,” Yanof said. “I’m super proud that we have that ambitious and real goal for every single student we serve.”