Regenia Crane has spent most of her life preparing to be principal at The Phoenix Academy.
“I’ve always said it was about making relationships with kids,” Crane said. “That’s where I got the name ‘Mama Crane.’”
For the students at The Phoenix Academy and the Behavior Intervention Center (BIC), Crane seems more like a parent than a principal.
“She cares more than any principal ever had,” said Unique Morrow, a Phoenix senior. “I guess I recognized that they were here for me.”
The Phoenix Academy, formerly the Alternative Education Center, is a non-traditional high school for students at risk of not completing their high school degree because of medical or family issues, “tragedy, a lack of motivation or they just didn’t fit in,” Crane said. “Some are parenting.”
“They have to be identified as at-risk,” she said. “We want our school to be a choice, not a last choice. I look at their attitude and behavior. If they have a behavior problem, I don’t take them. I want them to graduate.”
Last year, 76 Phoenix Academy students did. This year, Crane’s goal is 100 graduates. She currently has 105 students in the academy, plus 75 to 80 more in the Behavior Intervention Center, located on the campus. BIC is for students who have broken the student code of conduct and have been assigned to the campus for 10, 15 or 30 days.
“We have both in the same building,” Crane said. “It’s like I run two different programs.”
Crane, a Fort Worth native who has been in education for 24 years, was named principal at the Alternative Education Center in 2014. The first thing she looked at was changing the name and the stigma of the campus.
“I said ‘that’s a label,’” she said. “I thought of them rising from the ashes. They’re diamonds in the rough. They’re valuable, they sparkle, but sometimes life covers them. My role is to dig deep and shine off some of that dirt. I speak life into kids.”
That stigma is stuck in some people’s minds, admits Leonardo Verduzco, a Phoenix junior.
“I shrug it off because I’m going to be a better person for coming here,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like school. This school changes the way you look at yourself.”
So how does it work?
“It’s really like an online course in a building,” Crane said. “You’re in control of your pace. We individualize their plan. The elective courses they go through pretty quickly. Math and English are pretty long.
“You don’t have all the extracurricular activities,” she said. “I’m able to identify that kid that may be falling through the cracks. There are so many places to hide in a large school. I know my kids. I know their faces. I know if something isn’t right.”
And that’s the secret to her success.
“Last year, I was skipping around and she got on me, but in the right way,” said Chris Weidel, a Phoenix student. “She doesn’t want you to throw this chance away. It’s constant positive reinforcement.”
Jehad Younes admits that he was struggling when he came to The Phoenix Academy in August.
“I messed up the last two years, laziness, I didn’t want to do anything,” he said. “Here there’s always somebody looking out for you.”
Younes arrived with 15 1/2 credits, but plans to have enough credits to graduate by Thanksgiving.
BIC students don’t stay as long, but Crane still plans to have an impact on them.
“Kids don’t misbehave just to misbehave,” she said. “I can’t change what happened, but I want this to be a safe, positive place. When they leave here, I want them to take some tools. Our recidivism is really low. ”
Mansfield’s administration has noticed her efforts.
“I think the culture that’s there right now is nothing short of remarkable,” said Superintendent Jim Vaszauskas. “We’ve got kids there whose parents are sick, they’re dealing with every crazy curve ball you can throw at them. Mrs. Crane believes she can make a difference in their lives, that she can make it so that what they’re dealing with now doesn’t affect them forever.
“She has a heart for kids,” Vaszauskas said. “She doesn’t have a job, it’s a calling for her. For Regenia, it’s a no judgement zone. It’s not just kids facing challenges. She has kids that want to move along and get started in their career or college. She’s there for them, too.”
Mama Crane doesn’t sugarcoat the message either, said Phoenix student Asia Pointer.
“She’s like a mama,” Pointer said. “She gives good advice. Some teachers tell you what you want to hear. Mrs. Crane is going to give it to you hard.”
Crane has seen what can happen to at-risk kids who get lost, and she’s been to their funerals.
After graduating with a degree in business from the University of North Texas, she sold printers, got married to Jack Crane and had a son, Jacob. After staying home with her son for several years, she started substitute teaching at a middle school, where she was soon assigned to a class of tough kids and gang members.
Crane and her husband soon brought the kids home, fed them and took them to church.
“I had Crips and Bloods,” she said. “The Lord was protecting me. I was so naive. I just knew I was helping kids.”
After seven years, she began teaching at Arlington’s Even Start literacy program, helping at-risk students get their high school diploma. Many of her students were young mothers, she said. From there, she went to Arlington’s alternative high school, Venture. In 2004, she was hired as assistant principal at Mansfield’s Alternative Education Center.
“(Mansfield superintendent Bob Morrison) wanted me to have experience in a comprehensive high school,” she said. “He knew I wanted to be principal at an alternative high school.”
So Crane went to Mansfield High School as an assistant principal for seven years. After Jerry Gray retired as AEC principal in 2014, Crane was hired to run the campus.
Her focus isn’t only on getting her students diplomas, but on what comes after.
“We’re talking college to these kids,” Crane said.
A grant from the Mansfield ISD Education Foundation helped the school put on Launching Leaders from Flame to Flight, teaching them interviewing skills, how to dress, how to tie a tie, finding them business attire and culminating in a career fair.
“When they leave me, I want to be able to say I did everything I could,” she said.
The Phoenix Academy
902 E. Broad St.