Mastery Charter Schools has earned bragging rights for taking over several of the Philadelphia public schools' most violent and low-performing schools and turning them around, sometimes in just a year's time. And it has done so with the blessing and cooperation of the school district.
It's all part of the Philadelphia schools' Renaissance program, now in its second year. The program farms out the district's worst-performing schools to charter-school operators that offer the best reform plans.
Mastery, a nonprofit run by CEO Scott Gordon, has had success with many of the eight Philadelphia public schools in its fold.
Two of those schools were on a tour last week arranged by the Education Writers Association: Shoemaker, now a seventh-through-12th-grade school with 690 students, formerly a seventh- and eighth-grade school; and Harrity Elementary, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school with 810 students.
Both schools serve mostly black and mostly poor students from their surrounding neighborhoods. And today, both are orderly bastions of learning, with the test scores to prove it.
Students at Harrity, which Mastery took over in 2010, leaped 17 points in math in one year, for instance. Last year, 55 percent of its students scored proficient or above, compared to 38 percent in 2010. Reading scores went up by 10 points in 2011.
Shoemaker, which Mastery took over in 2006 under a former superintendent, has been steadily making progress, as well. According to the Philadelphia Department of Education, 74 percent of Shoemaker's students scored proficient or advanced in math. That was unheard of before Mastery's takeover.
Mastery's success could be a fine blueprint for Cleveland, should it gain some of the flexibility outlined in Mayor Frank Jackson's school reform plan. The Ohio General Assembly desperately needs to approve that plan without further delay.
Here are some of the key lessons from Mastery's successes that Cleveland schools should master:
Take over the environment:One of the first things that Mastery Charter schools did was to paint the hallways cheerful colors, replace broken tile and make other renovations.
Cleveland has few wretched schools, thanks to a vigorous school construction plan, but Shoemaker Assistant Principal Daniel Bell said that if students are to exude a professional aura, the building has to reflect that.
Work as a Team:Mastery gives each teacher plenty of critiques, instructional videotapes and coaching if needed. "It's a system of support," says Nadirah Sulayman, one of Mastery's coaches. The poorest performers are pushed out.
Be kid-centered:"I actually love this school," says Chelsea Leon, a seventh-grader at Harrity. "My teachers push us to do things. If you don't feel well, you can talk it out with your teachers."
"Everything starts and ends with the kids," says Shoemaker Principal Sharif El-Mekki. That attitude resonates with students.
High expectations are a given at both schools. Youngsters wear uniforms, and there are clear rules about how to behave: single-file in the hallways and no fighting, with immediate consequences, up to suspension, for those who do. Shoemaker students take social-emotional classes where they learn why it's important to make good decisions, and there's a big emphasis on going to college.
Make parents part of the team: Building trust with parents wasn't easy. Harrity Principal Debi Durso was surprised that the most frequent question she fielded last year was how long was she going to stay at Harrity, because so many principals had come and gone.
But after a year of strong student achievement and openness to parents, she has gained parents' trust. And Harrity has a parent volunteer program -- started by the parents. Mastery hasn't mastered everything. This fall, it took over Simon Gratz High, a traditional ninth-to-12th-grade high school. CEO Scott admits "it has taken a lot more" to change that school, so they're not bragging about it -- yet.
Philadelphia is also going through a big budget squeeze that will affect the charters -- and administrators at Shoemaker readily say teacher burnout is a concern. Mastery teachers are paid less than teachers at traditional Philadelphia public schools, although they can earn merit pay and promotions.
Still, Mastery shows that flailing public schools can be turned around if administrators and teachers are focused on learning and student behavior.
"Excellence. No Excuses," is Mastery's motto. It should be Cleveland's as well.