Turning around Philadelphia’s struggling schools

    The Philadelphia public school system is thinking of turning over 30 failing schools to new managers, including charter schools.

    One charter manager in the city has recently won national acclaim for improved student performance at its four schools. WHYY’s Stephanie Marudas looks at how Mastery Charter has turned around one struggling school in Germantown.

    Kevin Tolbert doesn’t mince words about what Pickett Middle School was like when the Philadelphia School District ran it.

    Mastery Charter School was formerly the Pickett Middle SchoolTolbert: It was trash everywhere. It was dirty. It was hard to focus because in classrooms, all you heard was talking. Paper balls being thrown everywhere. The teachers was trying to teach but they couldn’t because they had to worry about students being bad and disciplining students.

    But Tolbert says his school became safer, cleaner, and a serious learning environment after Mastery Charter took over two years ago. Mastery renovated the building to feel brand new and eventually accommodate 700 students in grades 7 through 12 come 2011. Right now, there are 300 students in the 7th, 8th and 9th grades. Kevin Tolbert is a 9th grader, and so is Sydnei Ellis.

    Sydnei Ellis (left)  and Kevin Tolbert with one of the many inspirational signs posted on Mastery's walls.Ellis: It makes me feel safe just to know that like no fight will break out at any point in time because if you fight one time, you automatically get kicked out. So I can learn without any distractions or anyone trying to fight me.

    Taylor: The last time we had a fight in this building was September 24th, 2007.

    That’s Rufus Taylor. He’s the assistant principle for school culture.

    Hallway at Mastery CharterTaylor: My job is to make sure nothing stops learning and kids are safe. Period.

    But to do that, Taylor says a spirit of community, non-violence, high standards, and consequences must shape everything students do. For example, students enter the building everyday through the cafeteria where staff members check their id badge and uniform.

    Staff Member: Badges up, shirt tucked. Badges up, shirt tucked. Badges.

    These sleepy-eyed teenagers then eat breakfast, and Rufus Taylor sometimes serenades them with a variation of the theme song from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

    Rufus Taylor addresses students in the cafeteria.Taylor: Such a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Will you be mine? Will you be mine? Will you be my student?

    Teachers then collect homework. But one morning, Taylor doesn’t like what he sees.

    Taylor: Put the papers down. There’s absolutely no talking. We have 2-1/2 minutes to give homework submission in. I shouldn’t be having this conversation with eight weeks left in school. Let’s try it again.

    Taylor eventually dismisses the kids. They exit silently in a single file line. Remedial reading teacher Zach Hasse says if students act up during class, he can count on school administrators for help.

    Mastery's code of conductHasse: I can call a dean and they’ll come take that student and then I can continue to teach. So if students become disruptive, then you don’t have to kind of sidetrack your whole lesson for that.

    The school’s walls are covered with inspirational quotations, college banners and posters tracking academic progress. One chart shows the school’s 2008 state standardized test scores. The scores are noticeably higher than 2007 when the school district was in charge. Mastery’s principal Dr. Kelli Seaton says the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment is an effective benchmark.

    Seaton: Our mission is that our kids go to college and that they’re ready for the global economy. So if they’re not doing well on the PSSA, we have huge concerns about them being ready for the SAT, which means we have huge concerns about college work, and then huge concerns about career and global readiness.

    Signs remind students of what is expected of them.Mastery expects students to do at least two hours of homework each night and maintain grades no lower than a 76. The rigorous curriculum is designed around constant assessments, and if necessary, teachers provide extra help after school and on Saturdays. Elton Evans III is president of the parents association. He says Mastery’s motto “Whatever-it-takes, and Excellence-No Excuses” has changed his 9th grade son, Ezekiel, for the better.

    Evans: I find him getting up sometimes 4:30, 5:00 o’clock in the morning, trying to finish something or going over homework again. He’s coming in, X-box is to the side, and he wants to be one of those students that receives that full scholarship when he graduates.

    Officials at Mastery say they’ll put in a bid under the Philadelphia School District’s Imagine 2014 reform plan to turn around struggling schools.

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