Mastery Charter School Crosses the River Into Camden

Mastery ferries its 'No Excuses' attitude from Philadelphia to Camden, one of New Jersey's most troubled school districts

Students enter Mastery Charter School’s Lenfest Campus — located in Philadelphia’s Center City — through a labyrinth of motivational slogans.

One stands out, a mantra of the Mastery network of seven charter schools in Philadelphia that has caught the attention of the White House and, maybe just as notably, Oprah Winfrey.

With a red line through the word, the sign read: “No excuses.”

After 10 years helping to remake Philadelphia public schools, Mastery aims to bring that attitude — and its successful track record — across the Delaware River into Camden.

First Foray into NJ

Mastery last month was one of six new charter schools approved in New Jersey. In its first foray outside Philadelphia, it is also pursuing a plan to bring “multiple campuses” to what may be New Jersey’s most troubled school district, said founder Scott Gordon.

Gordon, who serves as Mastery’s chief executive, said he aims to add more campuses as part of the original charter or maybe in a new application, possibly as soon as next March.

“We’re really interested and excited about being a significant presence in Camden,” Gordon said this week. “We really want to be part of a larger solution to make sure the entire district can provide a quality education.”

It’s a big step for Mastery and for Camden, which has had a mixed history with charters over the movement’s 15 years in New Jersey. The state now appears ripe for a new influx of charter schools under Gov. Chris Christie.

Camden’s Charter Count

The city now has seven charter schools, serving close to 3,000 students — a fifth of the total public enrollment. Those seven include LEAP Academy, one of the state’s inaugural charter schools, and three schools in the Camden’s Promise Charter Schools network.

In addition, three of the 50 new charters submitting applications this week are headed for Camden, including one that would be a virtual, or online, school.

Mastery did not apply in the latest cycle, while it continues to find locations for the new schools. But with the state’s approval, Gordon said he hopes to be able to open two or three new schools in Camden as soon as next fall, including the already approved Excellence Charter School.

Philadelphia Test Scores

Mastery joins a coterie of charter companies that aim to gain a further foothold in the state. But it carries more of a reputation than most, with its focus on accountability and assessment that has helped lift its test scores soundly above those of other Philadelphia public schools.

President Obama singled out Mastery last summer as he promoted charter schools across the country. What’s more, Mystery recently won a $5.1 million federal grant that will help it open another 12 campuses in Philadelphia and Camden. Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network in September wrote it a $1 million check as well.

Specializing in a turnaround model that takes existing public schools and revamps and restaffs them, Mastery will start with a standalone charter school in Camden but does not rule out coming into existing schools in the future.

“We haven’t had those talks yet, but we’d definitely be interested,” Gordon said.

A Model School

The Mastery model has caught the attention of Peter Denton, the founder of Excellent Education for Everyone, the advocacy group best known for promoting school vouchers in the state. But the group — known as E3 — has also pressed a broader agenda that includes charter schools, with Denton pointing specifically to Mastery as a model he hopes will take off in Camden.

“Scott Gordon is a business guy who decided he’d work in this space and has applied all the same business practices,” Denton said.

He specifically cited its practice of replacing staff and essentially starting over: “It’s all new adults, that’s the key in how quickly he’s done this. It’s tough, but it’s doable.”

In Center City, the Mastery Charter School was quiet on Monday – at least of school kids – as teachers and staff of all seven Mastery schools across Philadelphia took the day to review and adjust to the latest student assessments. Mastery breaks the year into six semesters, each with its own tests for students and day of review for teachers.

“It gives us more frequent updates on where we are, more frequent progress checks for the students, and more frequent progress checks for parents,” said Steven Kollar, the Center City principal, still at his desk at 5 p.m.

“Being built on business principles, we like to reflect on the data,” he said.

Gordon said he’s held productive meetings with the Camden school administration to find the best locations for his schools. He wasn’t taking for granted the state’s approval, but said all the pieces falling into place both on the state and local levels.

“Those stars don’t often all align, so it’s been a fantastic start,” Gordon said.