Local Charter Public School “Levels Up” Its Academic Program

Jorleny, a second year student at the Phoenix Charter Academy Chelsea, approaches the stage for the third time this evening as a crowd of her peers and teachers cheer her on. She’s already received two certificates for completing Humanities I and Math I, her last two classes as a Category I student, Phoenix’s equivalent of the freshman year of high school. Now, she approaches the stage to receive a “Level Up” Award, officially recognizing and celebrating her advancement to Category II, or what is known as sophomore year in most high schools. She’s 25% closer to graduation, and it’s only December.

Level Up Ceremonies, a new initiative at Phoenix Chelsea, occur six times a year,  roughly every six weeks. During these ceremonies, students receive certificates and recognition for completing courses, Leveling Up (advancing to the next grade level), or even graduating. At the most recent ceremony on December 9th, eleven students were celebrated for perfect attendance, 33 course completion certificates were awarded, and ten students leveled up a category. “We’re seeing impressive student growth this year,” says Stella Dubish, Head of School. “These ceremonies are an important way to validate that growth, and encourage our students to keep pushing.”

In 2018, the Phoenix Charter Academy Network implemented Competency Based Learning, a model that uncouples student progress from the calendar year. In this model, students don’t wait until the end of the year to finish courses or advance grades; they move whenever they demonstrate mastery of the competencies, or skills, that they need. “If a student moves up a Level in December, we can’t wait until June to celebrate that,” says Ms. Dubish. “We needed something to mark that achievement sooner, to affirm them and keep that progress going.”

Like many schools, Phoenix Chelsea struggled to engage students after closing down their physical school during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Many of Phoenix’s students, half of whom are over 18, work part-time or even full-time jobs. School leaders say that students took on extra hours to support their families and save some extra money, one reason why attendance and progress in online classes was lower than they would have liked. Level Up Ceremonies are one way the school is  working to rebuild the culture of engagement and achievement.

“I feel happy, I feel excited for myself, and I feel proud of myself. [Last year was] a hard year for me, but I tried the best I could to do a lot of work,” says Jorleny. When asked about the value of the Level Up Ceremonies, Jorleny shares, “We get excited because Phoenix recognizes us for our hard work, and it pushes us to move more and work more.”

As the Level Up Ceremony commences, Tanya Silverstein and Vianca Rodriguez, the school’s Managers of Scholar Success, emphasize the value of the moment for all students, not only those being recognized. As they share with the students in attendance, in both English and Spanish, “Look around you – this will be you if you keep working, stay focused, and follow in the footsteps of those students who are being celebrated today.”

The Phoenix Charter Academy Network was founded in 2006 and serves over 500 students across Massachusetts, with schools in Chelsea, Lawrence, and Springfield. A network of alternative schools, its mission reads: “The Phoenix Charter Academy Network operates schools that challenge resilient, disconnected students with rigorous academics and relentless supports, so they take ownership of their futures and succeed in high school, college, and as self-sufficient adults.”

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