Ms. Carrie Larson
Fourth Grade Teacher
Phoenix Collegiate Academy
You might say that Carrie Larson is a gardener, but not in the traditional sense. The Phoenix Collegiate Academy (PCA) co-founder, former principal, and current fourth-grade teacher plants the seeds of knowledge and hope in her students’ young minds. She provides them the academic foundation necessary to make the successful transition into high school. She also instills and nurtures hope in their hearts that they—not just a few of them, but all of her students—can and will achieve a college education.
“When my colleagues and I first opened the charter school in 2009, I was excited to be part of an organization whose focal point was getting kids to and through college,” Larson says. “There are so many interesting things to concentrate on in education but in South Phoenix, a traditionally underserved academic area, we wanted to dedicate our efforts on helping kids graduate from high school and make a seamless transition to college.”
Larson, along with co-founders Rachel Bennett Yanof and Akshai Patel, were formerly with the Roosevelt School District and loved teaching in the community, which includes Central/South Phoenix. They believed that Phoenix Collegiate Academy could fill an academic niche in an area where finishing high school, let alone attending college, was an anomaly for many students.
The initial plan was to open the charter school with the sixth grade and grow up to 12th grade, but the more they studied the importance of early literacy, and with the encouragement of the community’s parents, PCA started growing down as well. The charter school now has an elementary school for grades K-4, a middle school for grades 5-8, and high school for 9th through 12th grades.
“Our original group of sixth graders are now freshman in college,” Larson says. “I’m so proud of them; I watched them struggle with their times tables. They struggled with reading and other courses, but they’d come in on Saturdays for tutoring and I would see them take on extra study hours. They put forth the effort because we believed in them and they believed in themselves.”
Larson proudly reports that 84 percent of those original sixth graders who graduated from Phoenix Collegiate Academy are now attending college.
“These kids are phenomenal, and it’s great that we now have alumni who come back to share their college experience and motivate our current students. It makes the goal of going to college real for them,” she adds.
Larson previously taught middle school in the Roosevelt district prior to starting PCA, but she enjoys teaching fourth grade because she feels she can reach kids at a very transformative age. Because they’re young, students have an earlier opportunity to develop the knowledge required to tackle Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school and later, lead them to a college and career path. She notes that while it may seem odd to have fourth graders focusing on college, at 9 or 10 years old, it’s an age group that is already thinking ahead.
“The kids at that age may not be thinking ahead like you and I do, like what specific college degree they want to pursue, but they are thinking about what subjects they like and what interests them. Maybe that’s animal care, math or even a job as a firefighter,” she says. “My biggest challenge as a fourth-grade teacher is to find out what motivates each child and then plant that seed or idea in his or her head.”
“It’s not enough for me to tell them they want to go to college,” Larson adds. “They have to discover what they want, what their individual goal is and how they can reach that goal. Student empowerment is one of our core values.”
With teaching experience in a traditional public school and now a public charter school, Larson says there are benefits and challenges to both academic environments. But, she believes everyone can agree on one thing.
“I think we all can agree that we want what’s best for the kids,” she says. “We can all rally around them to help them succeed—teachers, schools, parents and the community—despite our differences.”