by Katrina Morrison and Benjamin Herold
Mastery Charter welcomed students to Simon Gratz High on Monday morning, opening the doors at the first of three neighborhood high schools being converted to charters under the Renaissance Schools initiative this year.
As early as 7:15, students and parents began arriving at the school's main entrance at 17th and Hunting Park to register.
"It's a great day. We're ready," said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon, who said that his organization has poured roughly $800,000 into facilities improvements at the school and will spend roughly $3 million all told at the school this year.
Most District schools won't open until September 6, but Mastery hopes to use the extra week to continue registering students and orienting students to what they hope will be a new way of doing business at the school, which is seeking to get off the state's list of persistently dangerous schools.
Gordon said that about 25 percent of Gratz's teachers this year are returnees.
A few hours in to Gratz's new life, the changes seemed to be resonating.
"It's a whole different ball game this year," said Kimberly Jessie, the parent of a rising 9th grader at Gratz who had a 12th grader at the school last year.
Abdur-Rahim Furquan took in the scene with his daughter, also a rising 9th grader.
"Mastery is definitely a draw," said Furquan, adding that he would have sent his daughter elsewhere had Gratz not been taken over.
As students lined up to enter the building, Mastery staff inspected their uniforms, making sure every shirt was tucked in.
Saida Mohammed, a 15-year old 9th grader, said she didn't mind.
"Some kids need the order," said Mohammed. "If you are not ready for people to be hard on you, then you are not ready for Mastery."
Though the day's emphasis was on change, Gordon said Mastery was making a special effort to build on Gratz's heritage and history.
For the first time, Mastery has altered its usual blue and white color scheme, a staple of the organization's brand. Like most of the male staff members outside the school, Gordon wore a necktie in Gratz's traditional cherry-and-white, which will remain the school's colors.
"This is a community school," said Shayna Terrell, the school's new community engagement manager.
Next week, Audenried High will open under the management of Universal Companies, and the newly re-merged Olney East and Olney West Highs will open as one school managed by ASPIRA, Inc.