Mastery Charter Schools is a win for Camden

    “All is flux, nothing stays still,” said Plato, but you’d never know that in Camden. It’s still the worst school system in New Jersey despite decades of strategic plans and revolving superintendents and money and good intentions.  

    Now Mastery Charter Schools, based in Philadelphia, has had applications approved to open two new charters in Camden, right across the Delaware River. Yesterday Gov. Christie attended a ground-breaking ceremony for another approved Camden applicant, the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy.

    In a recent editorial in the Courier Post, Camden Education Association’s Keith Benson, who runs public relations for the teachers’ union, “implores” readers to “not be taken by what the traveling charter school salesmen were selling, or by what you have been told about the ineffectiveness of public schools.” He continues, “Do not celebrate the arrival of people trying to profit from you having fewer rights. Don’t be happy with getting charter schools that were owed to the community as true public schools. And do not support a charter education agenda that is good enough for poor black and brown children, but not for white communities.”

    Is Mastery a shadowy conspiracy sponsoring “traveling charter school salesmen” eager to profit from the seizure of community rights? Is Mastery’s expansion to Camden cause for celebration or resentment?

    The answer is in Philadelphia.

    Mastery Charter Schools in a non-profit charter school network that operates fifteen schools in Philly serving 9,600 students in grades K-12.  The organization specializes in the “restart” education reform model. Here’s how it works: a struggling school district turns over a specific school with a long history of failure to Mastery. Mastery then renovates the building, overhauls the curricula, retrains teachers, engages parents and community members, and “restarts” the school with the same students who were once under district auspices.

    Among the four types of school reform models — restarts, turnarounds, transformations, and closures — restarts are considered the most difficult. But Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery, explains that “it’s an unbelievable opportunity to take a desperate situation and turn the whole thing around.”

    How’s that working out in Philadelphia? Let’s look at Smedley Elementary School in Frankford, which Mastery restarted in 2010 with an enrollment of about 700 kindergarten-fifth graders.  (Full disclosure: my older son was a teacher there.) Before Mastery’s arrival, more kids got suspended (one in five) than scored proficient on the Pennsylvania standardized math and language assessments. The building was decrepit. Parents were unengaged.

    One year after Mastery’s restart of Smedley, Rich Migliore, a veteran teacher and administrator in the Philly public school system, chronicled his visit in the Philadelphia Schools Notebook. He explains, “I approached my visit as a learner. I wanted to see Mastery-Smedley through the eyes of an educator who has spent over 35 years in schools and in classrooms.”

    Here’s his appraisal: “the classrooms were all full of clutter all over every wall and in every nook and cranny. They had chairs, benches, and bookshelves filled with classroom libraries and stuff. They had the kinds of “good clutter” and “good stuff” which are found in our best classrooms everywhere and are necessary to inspire, enhance, demonstrate, inform, and reward achievement…What I saw at Smedley during my too-short visit was a really good school with a young and enthusiastic staff that had everything they needed to work their art and craft.”

    And how does the victimized community feel about those traveling charter school salesmen who are “trying to profit from you having fewer rights”?

    After Mastery had run Smedley for less than a year, parents realized that the K-5 configuration would require graduates — 6th graders — to return to traditional district schools for one year because Mastery’s upper schools (Shoemaker and Lenfest) start in 7th grade. In response to parent outcry, Mastery lobbied the public district for a 6th grade addition to Smedley and another of its restarts, Mann Elementary School. From another article in the Philadelphia Public Schools Notebook:

    “Delighted with the recent changes at their school, parents and community members on the School Advisory Council (SAC) at Mastery-Smedley are lining up in support of the move. ‘The [council] is thrilled with how Mastery has transformed the school,’ said SAC chair Ninette Cooper. ‘We don’t want to put students back into a system that was failing them in the first place.'”


    “I’m just afraid that these kids will slip back into the routine of bullying and fighting [if they go to Harding,]” said [parent Kathy] Beem. “Our children need to stay here for 6th grade and continue on to Lenfest, where they can keep on getting encouraged and get ready for college.”

    There’s a happy ending: Smedley was approved for expansion for 6th grade. Academic achievement is soaring: among Mastery’s three elementary school restarts, students posted 29 point gains in math and 20 point gains in reading. (The gains in Mastery middle schools are 40 points in math and reading.)  Violence has dropped by 97 percent.

    Mastery’s advent in Camden is great for students and communities but, maybe, not so great for Camden union leaders, who foresee threats to job security (Mastery is not required to hire union members) and finances. From a memo emailed last week from Chris Oberg, Camden Public Schools Interim Business Administrator to district administrators:

    “I am writing to update you on the status of our financial condition. [A]s we plan for the 2014-15 school year, we are facing a projected gap of tens of millions of dollars because fewer carryover funds remain… Therefore, effective immediately, a spending freeze is now in place.” (Emphases his own.)

    There are no traveling salesmen or racist profit-mongers. Just a fiscally-desperate school district, threats to the status quo, and, at last, the possibility of meaningful educational change for students and families. Plato didn’t say it but the proof’s in Philadelphia.



    Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.


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