Mastery charter grows its network with North Philly ‘turnaround of a turnaround’


Scholar Academies operates one of the highest-performing charter schools in Philadelphia, Young Scholars Charter School.

So when the school district gave the organization the keys to one of its own chronically struggling schools in 2010 through the renaissance initiative, it expected to see significant improvement.

But five years after the transfer, the school has changed hands once again.

After being operated by Scholar Academies for five years, Frederick Douglass Elementary School in North Philadelphia opened anew Wednesday as one of Mastery Charter’s growing portfolio of schools.

“We think that the school was doing OK, but it needs to get a lot better,” said Courtney Collins-Shapiro, Mastery’s chief innovation officer.

While most charters take in students through lotteries that draw students from all over the city, the “renaissance” distinction means the schools are neighborhood schools that must serve all students within certain boundaries.

Since 2010, the district has handed 20 of its schools to charter operators through this process. While some have seen gains on state tests, Mastery has had the most success in maintaining growth.

“Turning around struggling schools in inner-city neighborhoods is not easy work,” said Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership.

PSP gave Mastery $1.5 million to aid what the School Reform Commissioner Feather Houstoun dubbed “a turnaround of a turnaround.”

“Scholars did some really good things here. They were disappointed that they didn’t have a few more years to prove the case,” Gleason said.  “But I give them a lot of credit.”

Credit, he said, for not dragging the process out. The SRC was considering rejecting Scholar Academies’ bid for renewal based on two years of declining state test scores.

“Academic outcomes were insufficient over the charter term, which is why a nonrenewal recommendation was initially being considered,” said Lauren Iannuccilli, program manager for accountability in the district’s charter office.

Scholar Academies could have appealed, but instead reached out to Mastery in an effort to limit upheaval for students and parents.

Iannuccilli said the district ensured that there was agreement with parents on Douglass’ School Advisory Committee before the SRC approved Mastery’s takeover.

SRC renewed three of Mastery’s renaissance charters this year: Harrity, Mann and Smedley.

Mastery CEO Scott Gordon said taking over Douglass differs drastically from Mastery’s other renaissance turnarounds, in that the groundwork was already in place.

“Culture-wise, it’s really not a turnaround,” Gordon said. “The culture is good. They’ve got a nice community of parents.”

With Douglass, Mastery now runs seven Philadelphia renaissance charters. In total, it runs 20 schools in Philadelphia, but some of those distinct schools are in the same building. At Douglass, for instance, it now runs an elementary school and a middle school served by two distinct principals.

In addition to its highly ranked Young Scholars charter, Scholar Academies still operates another renaissance charter at Kenderton Elementary.


The data below comes from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Proficiency rates on the reading PSSA for Young Scholars Douglass and Mastery’s renaissance elementary schools.

Renaissance Charter2009–102010–112011–122012–132013–14
Young Scholars Douglass 22.2% 26.5% 31.3% 31.1% 28.2%
Mastery Harrity 25.8% 35.6% 46.9% 41.9% 45.7%
Mastery Mann 41.2% 46.1% 61.4% 55.2% 52.9%
Mastery Smedley 21.1% 35.4% 38% 41.1% 41.3%
Mastery Clymer n/a 27.2% 40.1% 40.4% 37.3%
Mastery Cleveland n/a n/a 25.4% 36.9% 43.2%

= final year under district control


Proficiency rates on the math PSSA for Young Scholars Douglass and Mastery’s renaissance elementary schools.

Renaissance Charter2009–102010–112011–122012–132013–14
Young Scholars Douglass 29.1% 43.5% 61.1% 44.4% 37.3%
Mastery Harrity 41.3% 54.1% 64.4% 55.6% 54.6%
Mastery Mann 48.9% 61.7% 83.7% 79.2% 75.9%
Mastery Smedley 29.1% 46% 53.9% 54.8% 51%
Mastery Clymer n/a 32.4% 49% 51.5% 51.4%
Mastery Cleveland n/a n/a 26.6% 46.9% 54%

= final year under district control


Optimistic for the future

On Wednesday morning, as parents dropped kids off in the Douglass schoolyard, most had positive things to say about the work done by Scholar Academies, but were optimistic about the changeover.

“Mastery is tops, that’s what I was told. I read up on it. And I’m going to see,” said Valerie Brown, a grandmother of a seventh-grade boy and fifth-grade girl. “I hope it’s a big improvement. We’ll see by first report card.”

Brown said parents need to share in the responsibility for recent test score declines.

“I really think the parents have to pitch in a little more and be a little more stern and take things away,” she said. “That’s what I had to do. He wanted to play Xbox all day when he came home from school. ‘No, you’re going to do your homework first, then games.'”

Deshaunte Wagner, whose son, Saleem, is in fourth grade, was pleased to find that Mastery was changing the school’s policy for dealing with kids with emotional support needs.

The program Scholar Academies ran, moved her son, who has an emotional support special-education disability, into a separate wing of the building. Scholar Academies said that practice allows teachers to have better one-on-one interactions with children.

But some parents disagreed.

“They couldn’t bring nothing, no book bags, no pencils, only money. So it was kinda like the kids were in prison,” said Wagner. “So, I feel a lot better that he’s in regular classes now.”

Mastery itself has undergone significant changes over the years.

There’s now more of a focus on critical thinking and personal grit, leaders said, and less on its original “no excuses” model that hinged on strict discipline and traditional instruction.

To teach in a Mastery school is to embrace a very specific pedagogical model. The 75 percent of last year’s faculty who remained at Douglass went through intensive training this summer.

“So anybody who is new to Mastery – regardless of how long you’ve been teaching – comes in for almost a full three weeks prior to school opening,” said Collins-Shapiro, a former Philadelphia School District administrator. “We walk through, like, if you’re a fourth-grade teacher, here’s the fourth-grade curriculum, here’s what you are going to be doing, and you’re going to practice with other fourth-grade teachers.”

At Mastery, a centralized team develops the curriculum and chooses materials for each of its schools. Leaders say this allows teachers to spend less time searching for content and more time developing effective ways to teach it.

“We can create the framework for the lesson,” said Collins-Shapiro. “Now your job is to work with all the other teachers in your content area to say, ‘How am I going to teach it?'”

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission has faith that Mastery’s teachers will come up with good answers.

It reupped Douglass’ charter until 2020.

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