Erica Hall remembers attending Shoemaker Middle School in the days before it converted to a high school under Mastery Charter three years ago.
Students ran the halls, even burning bulletin boards. They disrespected teachers, who in turn seemed not to care whether the students learned anything.
“It was the type of school that you would just be there to be there, and you would pass without even doing anything,” said Erica, now an 11th grader.
But with Mastery, she said, “It’s a whole different setup.” For one, fighting is not tolerated. Teachers work until students grasp the material. Those doing mediocre work must meet with their teachers periodically to discuss their progress.
“If you have a 78, they still feel you can score higher,” she said. “Teachers show that they really want you to pass and [that] they really care.”
Erica said the new attitude changed her behavior.
“I used to come to class and play around in the halls, but Mastery made me learn that I could be something,” she said.
Shoemaker is one of three Mastery charters created from District middle schools; the two others are Pickett in Germantown and Thomas in South Philadelphia. Mastery founder Scott Gordon was invited by former CEO Paul Vallas to convert these schools after the success of his first school, Mastery-Lenfest in Center City.
Of 568 students in grades 7 through 11 at Mastery-Shoemaker, almost all are African American, 78 percent are economically disadvantaged, and 21 percent receive special education services. Principal Sharif El-Mekki said that about 60 percent come from feeder school Guion Bluford Elementary; 40 percent are chosen by lottery.
After Mastery’s takeover, violent incidents at Shoemaker decreased by 85 percent and test scores soared. The number of seventh graders reading at proficient levels went from 20 percent to 71 percent, while eighth graders reaching proficiency went from 43 to 84 percent. Math scores showed similar jumps.
Producing this climate turnaround, Gordon said, was not easy.
“The biggest thing is there is one culture; everyone plays by that playbook,” he said. “Kids are surrounded with one message.”
Parents and students must sign contracts, and teachers are trained to be consistent in enforcing the rules – even untucked uniform shirts are corrected. “Every little thing we’re sweating,” Gordon said.
There is a strict code of conduct with clear expectations and a three-tier discipline system.
Minor offenses are recorded on demerit cards, and students who collect six demerits must attend a silent, two-and-a-half hour detention.
For more serious offenses, including insubordination or arguing in class, the school will bring in the parent, assign the student a mentor, or convene a “team” of teachers, students, and parents to talk about the impact of the child’s misbehavior.
“When you do something bad and you have a conference with teachers, they pull out that contract and say you signed this, so there’s no ‘ifs, ands, or buts,’” Erica said. “You got to be here to learn.”
For expellable offenses, the principal first holds an informal hearing. That is followed by a formal one with a hearing officer drawn from the school’s board of trustees, who makes a recommendation to a committee.
But Gordon said the goal is to keep students. He disputes the view that Mastery has improved climate by ridding itself of the most difficult kids.
“There’s a huge sensitivity internally … because we’re accused of it all the time. But that is not our culture,” Gordon said. “We have a moral obligation [to educate these students], as any school does, but particularly a school that is doing turnarounds.”
Gordon said that before Mastery first took over in the fall of 2006, 35 percent of the students left Shoemaker in the course of a year. In 2008, the school reported that it was trying to lower attrition to 10 percent. Last school year, Gordon said, the attrition rate dropped below 7 percent.
However, because it is a school with a regular feeder pattern, if expelled students can’t find another school after 30 days, Mastery takes them back, Gordon said.
It also houses students with behavioral and psychological disabilities in a separate, self-contained program called MAPS, which stands for Mastery Alternate People Support program. In five classrooms, students receive individual and group therapy daily from a psychologist and work toward reintegration into the larger community.
Besides the swift consequences for bad behavior, Mastery has an elaborate rewards system. Each teacher tracks the behavior of each class, and the one with the highest rating gets a pizza party at the end of the week. Every six weeks, each grade level holds a “community” meeting of students and teachers to celebrate what they’ve accomplished.
“Every adult in the building advises in a single school culture and has the absolute highest expectations, not just for the students, but for themselves,” said El-Mekki.
He said students now believe in what Mastery can offer.
“It’s not just adults responding to students about their behavior,” he said. “It’s adults helping students understand why it’s important, what impact it has, and how it’s a barrier to their college career and goals.”