Before the Mastery charter school network decided to make its move into Camden, CEO Scott Gordon set his sights on turning around schools like the William F. Harrity Elementary School in southwest Philadelphia.
In one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, where nine in 10 students are poor enough for subsidized meals, Harrity was among the city’s lowest performing. Even the kids said it was an unsafe place to be.
“It was real dangerous in here — it was not a safe environment,” said Tyanna Johnson-DeShield, a 13-year-old eighth-grader.
In 2010, Mastery was chosen by the Philadelphia school board to remake nearly a dozen of its most troubled schools, bring in its own staff and basically start over with the same kids. At Harrity, a new principal was installed, as were all but a half-dozen teachers.
Four years later, the transformation has been notable, with test scores rising and a sense of order instilled in the newly painted classrooms and hallways.
“I don’t like discipline so much,” Tyanna said with a smile. “But if you don’t have it, you make the same mistakes over and over again.”
Now, Camden will get a taste of the Mastery’s model, since the network is one of three charter organizations to win at least preliminary approval to open schools in the city next year under the newly minted Urban Hope Act.
For Mastery, it will be two schools next fall in existing district buildings, one in the Pyne Poynt Middle in North Camden and the other in the former Washington School in the Cramer Hill section of the city.
For the year after, it plans to build its own school in the Cramer Hill neighborhood.
The schools in Camden will not require quite the same kind of turnaround effort as those in Philadelphia, where Mastery now operates 15 schools. In Camden, it will start from scratch, recruiting and enrolling children from the catchment neighborhoods, instead of taking over an existing school with existing students.
But Gordon said he wants to bring in the same formula for success, one that he said starts with the instruction in the classroom, including a precise model of behavior management that awards students points for good behavior and demerits for bad.
Each child in the upper grades carries a “demerit card” on a lanyard around his or her neck, with eight demerits costing a detention.
But Mastery also includes strong supports outside the classroom, a lesson that Gordon said took some time to be learned to in Philadelphia. They include the standard supports through special education, but whether or not a student is classified as special ed, there also is separate counseling and staff to help the neediest students, Gordon said.
“Some students have significant trauma, significant mental health issues, and there needs to be a system to identify those students and get them support quickly,” he said.
How teachers are supported — and paid — is also a hallmark.
None of Mastery’s Philadelphia schools have teacher unions, nor will the Camden schools. The salary scale will start at $45,000 and goes as high as $87,000, with raises based on performance standards.
“So someone quickly can make a lot more money, or they can stagnate over time and potentially make less,” Gordon said.
Forty-five percent is based on student achievement, 40 percent is classroom observations, and 15 percent based on “Mastery values and responsibilities,” which Gordon described as “believing that all children can learn and acting as if all children can learn.” A new criteria using student surveys will be added next year.
Mastery will have more to work with in Camden, where the funding per student will be more than double the $8,500 in Philadelphia. Some of that difference will be absorbed in the building costs that will be required in Camden, but when asked whether that would also provide more resources for teacher pay or even smaller class sizes, Gordon said it would be more likely be in the supports that students are provided.
But even so, the model doesn’t much change, one based on specific planning and training on everything from coaching teachers to elementary school literacy. The faculty room is lined with color-coded tags for every student, complete with their reading levels.
“We’re hoping that the fundamentals of the Mastery model will be the foundation for Camden as well,” he said. “Its good instruction, its good teacher development, its good student leadership development.
“Those are the same things every child needs, whether they live in Camden or Lower Merion or Cherry Hill,” Gordon said.
Another lesson was the need to include and build on the community. At Harrity, it was a group of older residents and church leader who got involved in the school. In Camden, the conversations have begun with community groups, Gordon said, an important step in a city where there will be considerably more families in which English isn’t the first language.
“One of the myths is that families don’t care, and in the community, there is nothing there,” he said. “That is not the case. Once you make the school an inviting place, they began to participate, they came to parent-teacher nights, they began to advocate for their kids.”
Tijay Prince, a seventh grader, admitted that he wasn’t putting his best effort forward in his years before Mastery took over Harrity. Now standing in his blue and gray uniform, he said that changed as expectations changed.
‘They pushed me more,” Tijay, 12, said. “They told me if I stayed on this road, I could go to college and have a good job.”
Lavette Hicks has been in Harrity since kindergarten, and now in eighth grade, she said there wasn’t a sense that completing one’s schoolwork made a big difference.
“If you did your work, you did your work,” she said. “But if you didn’t, nobody was there to pick you up and hold your hand like Mastery has. Now, they help you get up and get your work done.”