Life at Mastery : In the News : Mastery's formula for successful schools

Mastery's formula for successful schools

Sunday, May 2 2010. By Paul Davies

The charter operator shows that improving education doesn't require super powers.

Every few years the Philadelphia School District hires a new superintendent with a plan to reform its failing schools. The superintendents come and go, but the results remain about the same. Meanwhile, another generation of students is lost.

But a burgeoning charter school company is demonstrating that the city's failing public schools can be fixed. In short order, Mastery Charter Schools has launched one school and turned around three other public schools known mainly for violence and failure.

Test scores have shot up, and violence has practically vanished. The change is dramatic and real. Mastery's model has caught the attention of national educators and is one the school district should replicate.

Listen to Kevin Tolbert, 15, explain what the days used to be like before fall 2007, when Mastery took over Clarence E. Pickett Middle School in Germantown.

"There was nothing good about it," Tolbert said. "There were fights every day. The security guards would just watch as kids got beat up. The teachers didn't teach, and the students could roam the halls whenever they wanted."

Ezekiel Evans, 17, another student, could recall only one fight at Pickett this year, and it resulted in a student's expulsion.

A number of recent scandals have given charter schools in Philadelphia a bad name. But not all charters are the same. Mastery was one of 21 schools nationwide recognized for dramatic educational gains among low-income students.

Glowing national press has come from Time magazine and USA Today. The school has also caught the attention of the White House, which plans to pump $4 billion into the 5,000 worst-performing schools in the country. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited a Mastery school in September.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has what many think is a bold plan to let outside operators take control of a handful of Philadelphia's worst-performing schools. If anything, her plan doesn't go far enough, fast enough. But she has the right idea.

Mastery's success shows a turnaround doesn't take years or just money. What it really takes is the right leadership, a safe environment, good teachers, and a laser focus on what really matters: educating children.

Mastery was founded by Scott Gordon, who was born in Philadelphia and went to public elementary school in the Northeast before his family moved to South Jersey. Gordon received an M.B.A. from Yale and worked for General Foods before returning to Philadelphia to launch a home-health company.

The lack of skilled workers in the region led him to found Mastery Charter High School in Center City in 2001 with the help of several business leaders. That success led to the takeover of the three failing public schools from 2005 to 2007.

Mastery strives to create a positive school culture focused on social and emotional learning.

The first thing Mastery does with a takeover is spruce up the building and replace broken equipment. Gone are the metal detectors and security guards. At the same time, violence has dropped an average of 85 percent.

That's because safety and order are a priority from Day One. Students who show up out of uniform are sent home.

When a student does something wrong - such as write graffiti - the incident is discussed at one of the weekly community meetings. The wrongdoer must apologize and make amends.

Gordon says gaining control of the school is the easy part. Then comes a relentless and rigorous focus on learning. The bulk of instruction time is dedicated to reading, writing, and math.

Going to college is the stated goal. The hallways of Pickett are lined with college banners and inspirational quotes. Students must score at least 76 out of 100 on tests to move on.

There are Saturday classes, summer school, and a homework club for pupils in need of extra help. To graduate, each student must complete an internship and take a college course.

Unlike many charters where students come from all over the city, the majority of Mastery students are from the neighborhood. But Mastery does replace the administrators and almost all of the teachers. Mastery focuses on hiring the best teachers. Those who excel receive raises based on performance.

A few teachers who cannot deliver have been weeded out. But teachers also get a lot of support and supervision. Instructional guides and videos are used to highlight best practices.

In one history class randomly observed recently, the teacher was lively and engaging. As soon as a question was asked, almost all of the students' hands shot up.

"They are strict, but they still love us," Evans said of his new teachers. "Before no one ever told us they loved us. They just let us do whatever we wanted."

Mastery's success shows that fixing failing schools isn't rocket science. If anything, Mastery's model should be the rule rather than the exception.