John Davidson still remembers the date: February 11, 2011.
That’s the day his boss, Mastery Charter Schools CEO Scott Gordon, called him with a simple message.
“It’s a go,” Davidson recalls Gordon saying.
Davidson, an assistant principal for school culture at Mastery’s Lenfest campus, had been lobbying Gordon and other administrators at Philadelphia’s largest charter network to start a football program. The purpose wasn’t to achieve gridiron glory, but instead to retain students who’d been leaving Mastery for high schools with stronger sports programs.
“A lot of our young men were leaving in high school,” Davidson said.
Football, Davidson argued, would keep kids engaged and enrolled. The Mastery brass agreed, and in the fall of 2011 students from five network campuses merged to form the Mastery North Pumas.
That same year, Mastery inherited another football squad, the Bulldogs of Simon Gratz High School. Mastery took over the troubled North Philadelphia school as part of the School District of Philadelphia’s Renaissance initiative, which converts struggling traditional public schools into charters.
While Mastery’s other schools were trying to keep kids from leaving, Gratz was hoping to attract them. A legendary basketball and track powerhouse, Gratz’s football program had been gaining momentum under athletic director and football coach Eric Zipay. The better the athletic program, the more appeal Gratz would have and the easier it could shed its label as a school of last resort.
“In the community that Simon Gratz is in, there’s not too many levers to get young people committed to school,” said Zipay. “Football’s a lever that we can use and a vessel we can use to make sure they’re better in their lives.”
On Saturday, Mastery North and Simon Gratz made a bit of prep sports history when they met for the 5A public league championship. It was the first time two schools from the same charter network contended for a city title.
“This is history,” said Davidson with a classic coach’s rasp. “This is unprecedented. Hopefully we can do it again in more years.”
The accomplishment is partially a reflection of Mastery’s size. The network has grown to 14 schools in Philadelphia and is the only one in the 28-team public league that has two squads. So if anyone was going to complete this feat, it would have been Gratz and Mastery North.
But the title game also reflects a growing embrace of sports at Mastery, which made its name as a hard-driving, academics-first charter network, but has more recently sought a more holistic approach.
“Students need everything — not just the academics piece, but the social and emotional and athletic,” said Davidson. “A lot of young men and a lot of young ladies are successful academically due to sports.”
Talid Crippen, a senior at Mastery’s Thomas campus in South Philadelphia, is one of those young men.
Asked what football means to him, Crippen rattled off a list of relatives — his dad included — who played high school football and endowed him with a love for the game.
“It’s just a lifestyle,” Crippen said. “I had to do it. There’s nothing else.”
The star defensive end, tight end, and wide receiver enrolled at Thomas in seventh grade and would have transferred if Mastery hadn’t started a football team.
“I had to go to a high school that had football,” he explained.
Lucky for him, Mastery had football. He plans to graduate in the spring and attend college next fall.
“Stay tuned,” he said with the winning wink of a confident athlete.
At Gratz, football has become part of the school’s turnaround narrative.
Voncel Harrigan played football at Gratz and graduated in 2003, just as the team was beginning its resurrection. Back then, Harrigan said, nobody wanted to go to Gratz.
“It was scary,” he said.
Recently, though, the football program’s success has made Gratz a magnet for talented players. Gratz won the 5A public league championship in 2015 and 2016, and several Bulldog standouts are receiving interest and offers from Division I college programs.
“It brings everybody together,” Harrigan said. “Instead of having everybody saying, ‘Let’s go out of the neighborhood to go to school,’ everybody wants to go to Gratz now.”
One of those kids is Harrigan’s nephew, Dhontaye Edwards, Jr., a sophomore on the Bulldogs team.
Edwards’ mom, Vontia Jones, went to Gratz in the 1990s and didn’t want her son to do the same. She initially sent him to Abraham Lincoln High School in the Mayfair section of Northeast Philadelphia. Unsatisfied with the football team at Lincoln, Edwards pleaded with his mom to approve a transfer. Gratz was the obvious choice.
“I couldn’t keep him away from here,” Jones said. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m going to Gratz next year.'”
As a school, Gratz’s comeback story is far from complete. Graduation rates have risen steadily, but the school’s standardized test scores are about on par with its peer schools and below the charter sector average, according to the Charter School Office’s latest evaluation.
Jones sees big changes, though, in the school’s curriculum and commitment to academics. Her son is in honors classes and already thinking about internship opportunities.
“They’re doing a great job preparing these kids for their future,” she said.
In case you lost the thread, yes, Gratz and Mastery North did actually play a football game on Saturday.
Fittingly, it was a tight contest.
Gratz came in the favorite, having won the last two 5A public league titles, and looked the part early. The Bulldogs scored on their first play from scrimmage and surged to a 26-6 halftime lead.
Mastery North, however, mounted a fierce second-half rally, thanks to a series of stellar catches by Crippen. Down 26-20 in the final minutes and facing a fourth down, the Pumas drew up a deep pass for their star receiver. Just as Crippen extended to catch the ball, a Gratz defender swatted it away and iced Mastery North’s hopes of an upset.
The play sealed a three-peat for the Bulldogs — who now move on to play the Catholic league champs, Archbishop Wood, in the 5A playoffs — and capped off a first for charter schools in Philly.