Some of these students are dropouts, financially supporting themselves or their families. Some of them, like Bernard — who moved to the U.S. two years ago from Haiti looking to study nursing — are immigrants, arriving with limited English but great hopes of changing their lives.

How should the public school system serve these students? That’s a question Beth Anderson has been trying to answer for 11 years, since she opened the first of three Phoenix Charter Academy high schools in the state. Anderson, who has worked with disadvantaged youth throughout her career, was frustrated by the limited options for educational achievement presented to her students.

“Our world needs these people,” she said. “They are incredible problem solvers. They are deeply resilient. They are amazing human beings that we actually need to have in leadership positions in communities.”

The network is also rethinking school structure and assessments to better serve its students, many of whom are not only behind in credits or don’t speak English well, but work after school to support themselves, parents, grandparents, or children. Phoenix is moving toward mastery-based portfolios, which evaluate students on projects like debates, research papers, or seminars, rather than relying solely on exams. That way, a student who is court-involved, misses school for work, or needs to take care of family members can still complete assignments and earn credits without being penalized for erratic attendance.

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