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April 2013 Vol. 20. No. 5 Focus on Getting to Graduation

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At Gratz, Mastery takes on challenges of 9th-grade transition

In its 2nd year at the school, the charter operator is making adjustments.

By by Dale Mezzacappa on Apr 1, 2013 02:55 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle
Jimik Ligon gets help from a teacher in the blended learning algebra class. Students work at their own pace through a computer-based curriculum under close supervision.

When Mastery Charter took over Simon Gratz High School in 2011, the organization was getting into territory it had never been in before.

Mastery’s prior experience with 9th graders had been in the school they started – Lenfest – and in schools they had built up from the 7th grade. 

But Gratz was different – a 9th-through-12th grade comprehensive high school that had recently hit a low point in its storied history. When converted to a Renaissance charter in 2011, Gratz was listed by the state as “persistently dangerous,” with a graduation rate under 50 percent and student proficiency rates in the teens. 

After a difficult first year, Mastery made adjustments. One was to create a separate 9th-grade academy for the class of nearly 350 freshmen. 

“We found that our students came in at so many different levels, we needed to create a separate academy to get them to buy into their education and to the high school scene,” said Peter Langer, the academy’s 29-year-old principal. 

What the first year taught them, according to Langer and several teachers, was the need to give more focused attention to the 9th-grade class and constantly reassess students’ needs rather than push a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Besides creating the separate academy, Mastery-Gratz this year made numerous changes to the curriculum and instruction for its 9th graders. 

Although final data aren’t in for the year, officials say that serious incidents are down – Gratz came off the “persistently dangerous” list last year – and benchmark testing is showing more rapid academic growth for most students, even those at the lowest levels.

Last year, without the separate academy, 319 students completed 9th grade while 22 were retained, Mastery officials said. Ten of the 22 stayed to repeat the grade at Mastery, while 12 transferred out.

Setting expectations

The new academy is self-contained. Students and faculty use a separate entrance and don’t go into the part of the building that houses the upperclassmen.

“The goal is building community and setting clear behavioral and academic expectations,” Langer said.

“They give us a lot of opportunities,” said Nychelle Hamiel, 15, who started 9th grade in 2011 at Northeast High but found it hard to adjust and got into trouble. Here she is repeating the grade but is in the honors program. She said at Gratz, “We have mediation. … We sit down and talk it out one-on-one to get to the root of the problem.”

Following its mantra of “sweating the small stuff,” Mastery spends days orienting students and families to behavior expectations. 

Its disciplinary system uses traditional detention (after six minor offenses like talking in class), and peer mediation for some offenses. It sends disruptive students – more than 10 percent of the 9th-grade class – to two programs operated by private providers.

The in-house one for less serious offenses is just for Gratz students and run by Camelot. Twelve 9th graders were there in March; seven others returned to the main program, Mastery officials said. 

There were 28 students in the off-site Success Academy in Germantown, a more regimented environment for students who have committed serious offenses. The Wayne Avenue site functions as a disciplinary placement for Mastery’s six high schools. As of mid-March, more than one-fifth of the 125 spots in the program are occupied by Gratz 9th graders. 

The goal is to reintegrate all those students back. “They’re absolutely still our kids,” said Mastery spokesperson Sheila Ballen. She expressed confidence that the school will reduce its dependency on these programs over time.

Curriculum changes

Langer said that reading levels of the entering students range from kindergarten to 12th grade, with some 20 percent testing at 4th grade or below. More than a quarter – 94 of 347 students – are in special education.

“The best thing about the [9th-grade academy] is that it is meeting each child where they are,” said assistant principal for instruction Nadia Bennett, adding that the tailored instruction is still designed to be “rigorous and challenging.”

Most of the students move through a curriculum that includes the standard courses of African-American history, Physical Science, Literature, Composition, and Algebra. 

Last year, all students were expected to read the same texts, 9th-grade classics like Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Raisin in the Sun. This year, however, the game plan changed because so many students were so far behind in their reading skills.

“Last year, we didn’t adjust the novels for such a level,” said Langer. “The lowest-level students were asked to read books that were too high for them … and they didn’t improve.”

This year, benchmark tracking indicates that the lowest readers are making more rapid progress, he said.

About 68 9th graders with the lowest skills skip Physical Science and follow a separate track of developmental classes, getting 12 hours of reading a week including “modified literature” and “reading intervention,” which includes basic instruction in phonics and vocabulary. 

On a March morning, teacher Maggie Sieleman-Ross was in a corner of one of these classrooms, surrounded by half a dozen students going over different words containing the root “act” – words like activity, interaction, transaction and subtraction – and asking them to use one in a sentence. 

In another part of the room, several other students were reading independently. Teacher Angela Calpin was working with a third group on Uncle Tom’s Cabin – starting with the note that “a cabin is a small place people live.” 

The students in this track may read novels like Maniac Magee and books by author Walter Dean Myers.

“We’re not lowering the bar; we’re giving students support where they need it so they can eventually meet the bar,” said Langer.

Students have responded to “challenge texts” that are above their level, said Sieleman-Ross, who like many of the other young teachers at Gratz is an alumna of Teach for America. She was pleasantly surprised when “the kids who showed the biggest growth were the ones who got the challenge texts.”

On the other end of the spectrum, this year Mastery created an honors program that enrolls 60 students. They get enrichment, such as college trips and the opportunity, this year, to see the Arden Theatre production of Raisin in the Sun after reading the play. 

In urban high schools, passing algebra often is a difficult hurdle for 9th graders. For math, Mastery is conducting a pilot project to teach algebra using “blended learning.” Students work individually through lessons in a computer program until they master the material. 

In a large room, several instructors, including part-time tutors, are there to help and conduct individual and small-group lessons on difficult concepts. Nearly 150 students are learning math this way.

Social and Emotional Learning

Academics are only part of the 9th-grade experience. Each day starts with a “circle,” a kind of structured homeroom in which students discuss what has happened since school ended the day before. 

And the day also includes two other classes: Social and Emotional Learning and an end-of-the-day study hall called Mastery Class. 

The Social and Emotional Learning class, a Mastery staple, focuses on building skills and behaviors that often trip up young people. Topics include how to talk to teachers and parents and resolve conflicts. The classes often have scripts and use role-playing.

“It explicitly teaches students when and how to have a conversation with a teacher he or she has a disagreement with,” said science teacher Sophia Seifert. Too many students can rationalize cutting class if they feel a teacher has treated them unjustly, she said; this is “to encourage positive behaviors, to make them think of the consequences.”

There is also a supplemental emotional support program, with a social worker, for about 30 students with special needs.

Like at other Mastery schools, teachers advertise their alma maters. College attendance is promoted as the goal for all, even those who are now far behind.

But Gratz has some catching up to do with other Mastery campuses. Ninth-grade attendance across all the schools is 91 percent, while at Gratz it is 85 percent. 

At Mastery-Shoemaker, where attendance is 95 percent, principal Sharif El-Mekki said that the school’s 7-12 grade structure definitely helps with the important 9th-grade transition – making it more of a non-issue.

“The longevity and relationship-building that occurs in 7th grade pans out naturally,” he said. “The fact that we’re 7-12 has tremendous advantages.”

Gratz has approval to operate 6th through 12th grades but has no immediate plans to add the lower grades. It must still work that out with the School District, said Ballen.

About the Author

Contact Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa at

Comments (22)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 26, 2013 7:45 pm
This article highlights the best and worst of charters. First, the worst: The leadership is apparently so inexperienced that they didn't realize 9th grade requires special attention. It takes about 2 weeks of teaching in a high school to know that. I'm a bit appalled that it took a year of "data" for Mastery to realize this. The best: Once they realized it, they actually did something very proactive about it. This pretty much sums up educational costs/benefits of charter schools. They have the flexibility and resources to be creative and directly address problems at the school level. But, they often have such inexperienced staffs that they spend a great deal of time re-inventing the wheel.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 26, 2013 9:47 pm
From the article it sounds like the teachers at Mastery Gratz are fast learners. They are doing the very same types of things we did at our "comprehensive high schools" back before the state takeover of our schools over a decade ago. What are called "neighborhood high schools" today, were called "comprehensive high schools" back in the day. We created all kinds of different programs to meet the needs of our students, including Ninth Grade Academies. In 1989, Connie Clayton had a "save the ninth graders" campaign and had us all create programs for the 9th graders. It was a lot of fun. We even went on retreats to plan stuff. I don't know though if what they said about reading growth and levels is all that accurate. There are no quick fixes for reading disability at the high school level, and the benchmarks are not accurate measures of reading growth. The benchmarks are the worst reading tests I ever had to use in my 34 year career. There is much misunderstanding today of what "reading level" means and does not mean, and there seems to be a general lack of knowledge about how to accurately assess reading ability. By the way, the PSSA's do not measure reading level. They are arbitrary classifications with little relation to actual stages of reading growth. Some day I would love to see us move away from the discussion of who is going to 'takeover our schools" and move it along to deeper conversations about how to develop authentic reading ability and measure it accurately and credibly.
Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on March 26, 2013 9:07 pm
How many staff - administrators, teachers, support staff, etc. - are at Mastery Gratz? There appears to be many more adults than are in most Philly neighborhood schools. The 9th grade academy has been around for a long time - including at Northeast HS (which is mentioned in the article.) It takes a lot of funding / staff. Apparently, Mastery has that luxury.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 29, 2013 10:42 am
I find it quite interesting Mastery Charter finds the importance of a class like So ial Emotional Learning at Gratz when they decided to drop it at there other schools. What is the real agenda for Gratz? I think that Mastery was a more honesty, trust worthy, transparent organization when they really live by their motto of "Excellence, No Excuses". It really should be changed to "You scrub my back and I'll scrub yours!"
Submitted by Brian (not verified) on April 2, 2013 8:15 pm
I am currently a teacher at a Mastery Charter School and while I can't really speak to why the SEL programs at some of the Mastery campuses were dropped, I can tell you that there is currently a ton of chatter about bringing back a more comprehensive and robust SEL program from K-12 that will be a a part of the model at all schools beginning as early as next year.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 1, 2013 6:31 pm
If Mastery believes that what they are doing at Mastery Gratz is working, would Mastery be willing to share their "tricks of the trade" with the SDP so that other schools in Philadelphia can implement some of Mastery's policies? Or does Mastery consider what they are doing to be proprietary? Would Mastery regard sharing their "tricks of the trade" and "secrets to success" as a potential threat to their prospects for expansion and takeover more schools? Is Mastery interested in helping ALL students in Philadelphia succeed, or just those who attend Mastery schools? These are some important questions and apply to other charter operators such as Universal, Scholar Academies, ASPIRA, as well. Education Grad Student
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on April 1, 2013 6:47 pm
Based on the article, there are no new "tricks." Mastery has more than sufficient staff and resources to provide the kinds of supports struggling students need. Mastery is "tweeking" what most teachers know is needed for students who enter high school reading below grade level.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 1, 2013 6:23 pm
Annonymous, When I spent time at a Mastery school, it was very well-staffed, especially with administrators (assistant principals and apprentice school leaders) and deans. I don't know exactly how Mastery supports having so many administrators and deans, but this does help their students. Would Mastery be willing to join with the District and advocate for more funding from Harrisburg? Or is Mastery only interested in having more funding for their schools. Perhaps Mastery sees the starving of the SDP as beneficial to them because it makes more schools "poorly performing" and eligible for becoming Renaissance schools? Education Grad Student
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 1, 2013 6:34 pm
EGS, supposedly that was the purpose of the PSP, cooperative/supportive sharing of success amongst the traditional, charter, and private schools. So far, the PSP has only accomplished rating schools in the usual well worn ways, and supporting special grant proposal projects in the usual foundation way. So much for their professed mission. Yes they were predicted correctly.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 1, 2013 7:39 pm
Ms. Cheng, I totally agree with your points. The lack of sharing of successes and best practices is something I find troubling. Charter schools are largely publicly funded, but what stipulations are there that require charter schools to share their tricks of the trade and best practices with traditional public schools? I focus more on charter schools because, especially with the Renaissance charters, it seems likely that the charter operators would have a vested interest in the failure of District schools. EGS
Submitted by Brian (not verified) on April 2, 2013 9:10 pm
EGS, I am currently a teacher at a Mastery School and I have some good friends that work in admin and other central office roles at Mastery so I know for a fact that Mastery has and continues to train outside districts on some of their current programs that have become fairly strong staples to their model (e.g. coaching, pd,curriculum and assessment, instructional standards, leadership trainings, etc.) for FREE and they are running more outside trainings this summer again. They have offered all of these services to some higher ups at the District on multiple occasions and it was not until recently (last August) that Mastery had some folks from the District attend the 3 day coaching training. I can't really speak to the volume of employees that attended nor can I speak to any follow ups that occurred. Also, even though I am not sure about the protocol involved (if there is one), Mastery is willing to give away any and all of the resources that were mentioned above. Given what I stated above, one could infer that Mastery is willing to not only help ALL students in Philly, but students in other cities and states as well. I hope this helps.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 2, 2013 11:49 pm
Hi Brian, Thanks for your reply. I did over 100 practicum hours at one of Mastery's schools and believe that some of Mastery's practices, especially related to school-wide positive behavior interventions and supports, would be very beneficial to other schools. I also like the emphasis that Mastery places on objective-driven instruction and using meausrable verbs in objectives. I am glad to hear that Mastery has reached out to the District and other schools. One of the reasons that the PBIS/school-wide behavior management worked at the Mastery school was because the school had an Assistant everyone was on the same page. Given the budget cuts in District schools and how this affects staffing, it may be a challenge in District schools to implement the PBIS/school-wide behavior management system which the same comprehensiveness and fidelity that I saw at the Mastery school at which I spent time. Also, the presence of social workers at Mastery schools is really important, but I am not sure how many District schools have social workers. However, I believe that with enough effort, planning, and teamwork, it would be possible at many District schools to improve the PBIS/school-wide behavior management systems using some of Mastery's best practices. I hope that principals, teachers, and other District employees take opportunities to learn from what Mastery does. I'm sure that there are opportunities for Mastery employees to learn from the District as well. We all need to collaborate to create the best learning environments for children! EGS
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on April 3, 2013 3:54 am
Nothing works for every school and every student. Mastery has a model known for text prep - the focus is on the PSSA (Keystone). It is very regimented and basically scripted. While this may work in some schools if the goal is increased test scores, there are certainly philosophical and practical differences. I would not allow my children to attend a Mastery school - just like Scott Gordon (although I can't afford private schools nor living in the suburbs).
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 1, 2013 6:18 pm
Dale, Regarding the Camelot-run program for disruptive students and Success Academy in Germantown, do parents have to sign off on their child attending these programs? Do students have due process? Why is Mastery contracting out these services? Why doesn't Mastery run these programs? How much are the contracts for Camelot and Success Academy in Germantown costing? Are these for-profit or non-profit entities? I'd be interested in your answers to these questions, if you know the answers. Thanks. EGS
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 1, 2013 7:02 pm
Did Gratz have a 9th grade academy when it was a District school? If so, did Mastery get rid of the 9th grade academy in 2011 when it took over Gratz? EGS
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 1, 2013 9:07 pm
Hi EGS, Gratz has definitely had a 9th grade academy in the past. Its been 10 years since I worked there, so I don't know how long ago it might have been discontinued, but they definitely had one while I was there. Many other comprehensives have had them before, as well, including all of the schools who were incorporating the Johns Hopkins model in the early 2000's--known as Talent Development. They work very well with a lot of structure and attention, but are a disaster if they are just thrown together without special programming and staff. They cost a little extra, so many of them fell apart shortly after funding was pulled around the time Vallas left.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 1, 2013 10:55 pm
Anonymous, Thanks for the insight. I believe that Overbrook HS still has a 9th Grade Academy, at least there's still the 9th Grade Academy sign on the back of the building and I've seen students use the door under the sign. My understanding is that many if not all of the elementary schools in the Gratz cluster are K-8 schools. I don't know what research says about transitions to high school, but it seems logical to infer that students who are transitioning from a K-8 school, especially if the 6-8 grades didn't function as a middle school-within-the-school, may need some "easing in" to a high school, particularly a large school like Gratz. Also, I could see that having extra supports for ninth graders could prevent some students from falling through the cracks. In terms of your point about structure and attention, structure and attention are important in any school, but especially important for high-needs students and students in transitional grades like 9th grade. EGS
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 2, 2013 2:37 pm
Ironic how practices that were thrown aside due to financial restraints in the public schools are duplicated at Gratz to much fanfare as the article states. Ironic how Charter Schools were set up to be laboratories for effective teaching practices and programs, but now charters are retreading practices from public schools that can no longer afford to implement them because of the growth of charter school spending. If all public schools had a alternative setting for disruptive students like at Mastery Gratz, public schools would be much safer and better performing. At my public high school, students can cut every class, curse out & threaten teachers and staff, and come and go as they please, without any consequences. The only form of consequences or discipline left for teachers is to CALL HOME and DOCUMENT everything, which as any sane person would agree is not effective in altering the negative behaviors exhibited by so many teenagers in our schools. I often comment to colleagues, that when I was in high school if I could cut all of my classes, act anyway I wanted to authority figures, and were allowed to come and go as I please, I would have probably acted in a similar fashion as those I stand before today.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 2, 2013 4:55 pm
Anonymous, You raise some interesting points. The District has alternative schools, but what exactly is the criteria for attending one of these schools? Is it a level 1 offense, like bringing a weapon to school or just chronic, disruptive behavior? Does Mastery Gratz use the same criteria in placing students with Camelot or Success Academy of Germantown or are the criteria different? Could the District use programs like Camelot or Success Academy in the same way that Mastery does? Do charter schools have more leeway with using these outside and school-within-a-school programs than traditional public schools? What does Mastery Gratz do when placing students with disabilities who have behavior problems? Do these students have manifestation determinations? I'm really curious about the process that Mastery takes in order to determine who attends the Camelot and Success Academy programs? It would be great if the Notebook could write an article about this topic. EGS
Submitted by K.R. Luebbert on April 2, 2013 5:11 pm
To get placed in a SDP alternative or discipline school, you practically have to kill someone. The "21" process is very time-consuming for administrators. There is very little provision for the chronic disruptive students. We used to have "accommodation rooms" run by Non-teaching assistants where a student could be sent to cool down and re-group for a 45 minute period. They were cut for budget reasons several years ago. Those "a" rooms were actually helpful. The NTA could call parents and talk to the kid. In house suspension is better that out-of-school suspension, but you must have money to pay for staff. None of these ideas are new or revolutionary--they just take money and people to implement. Mastery has the money and people, the SDP no longer funds these interventions for regular SDP schools--it is a shame.
Submitted by Mike (not verified) on June 6, 2014 8:57 am
People need to understand that different schools need different solutions for the lack of funds, motivation or whatever their main problem is. Rory
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 16, 2015 9:46 am

Did Gratz have a 9th grade academy when it was a District school? If so, did Mastery get rid of the 9th grade academy in 2011 when it took over Gratz? EGS clothing manufacturer

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