Philadelphia’s “school choice” movement gained statewide and national attention recently. Whether it was Oprah’s recent donation of $1 million to Philadelphia based Mastery Charter Schools, or the cases of several charter school operators who have landed in jail, “school choice” has featured prominently in coverage of Philadelphia’s unstable school system.


At the National Education Writers Association’s 65th National Seminar, hosted in Philadelphia, “school choice” and the city’s own public school district issues were examined. As the district faces a $218 million deficit next year, “school choice” will factor heavily into the district’s transformation plan.

As the public school district turns to charter schools as a part of the solution to their problems 25 percent of Philadelphia’s public school students are already dispersed in 80 charter schools throughout the area. And while there are many stories of failure among these schools, there are also stories of success, such as the case with Mastery Charter School’s turnaround schools, wherein a charter operator takes over low performing schools in the district.

Mastery is one of the most successful charter operators in the city and is regarded as a model for turnaround schools in the district. Two years ago, Mastery took over Harrity elementary, a low performing school known for frequent violent incidents among students.

In a turnaround school, Mastery takes in the same kids, uses the same building, along with the same special education students and programs and the same enrollment rules. Despite these challenges, Mastery’s turnaround schools see an average increase in test scores of 50 points after three years.

“I think it’s great because we learn more and it’s less violent,” said April Merrick, an 8th grade Harrity student who said the school used to have trash on the floor and graffiti on the walls. “Every class is represented by a college because Mastery’s motto is ‘go to college.’”

A Mastery turnaround comes with all new administrators and on average 75 percent of the teaching staff is new. Mastery’s strategies as they relate to teachers include managing their talent, paying for performance, investing in teachers and instruction and making sure all teachers have high expectations for their students.

“We don’t hire folks who don’t believe what we believe, which is; we can close the achievement gap,” said Scott Gordon, Mastery CEO.

When looking at the success of Mastery, Gordon said his model could be implemented district-wide. However, Mastery does receive a number of outside donations that supplement the cost of increased teacher starting salaries, which are $1000 more than the district, and the initial cost to turnaround a school, which is $11.5 million on average.

In 2006 Mastery took over Shoemaker, which had previously been identified as the second most violent school in Philadelphia. Since then, violent incidents have dropped 90 percent, but teachers still battle everyday to overcome the outside factors, such as poverty, that might negatively impact their success.

“We know that historically these kids are three to four levels behind,” said Kamua Stanford, a teacher at Shoemaker. “We know those barriers are there, but what you sign up for is getting these kids from point A to point B.”

Children in Mastery schools are assed every six weeks to ensure they are on the right track academically. The schools also have a college focus and each class is named after a college or university.

“They gave me the greatest gift of all which is college and they gave me the confidence to be all I could be,” said Turee Turner, a 12th grade Shoemaker student.

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