Mastery Thomas literacy support teacher Rebecca Orendorf leads a Play-in-1 session, where 1st graders gather in a circle to talk about the lesson of the day. (Photo: Harvey Finkle)
It has reconfigured school days to make time for morning meetings, end-of-day circles, and class time dedicated to social-emotional learning. One middle school program teaches skills including emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, mindfulness, and tolerance to stress. Students are encouraged to practice self-soothing.
Meanwhile, the staff studies topics including restorative practices, cultural context, building authentic relationships, self-awareness, and bias. The series runs about 18 sessions this school year.
All this is occurring amid curriculum and instructional revisions – what CEO Scott Gordon describes as “Mastery 3.0.” Staff calls the overhaul, including the trauma-sensitivity training, “the big pivot.”
The “pivot” addresses concerns among Mastery leaders that too few graduates enroll, persist, and succeed in college.
Compared to similar students, Haskell said, “Our graduates do better than average in persisting, but not at the rate that we want. So the question is, what’s missing? We need them to take ownership of their learning and to grow on their own.”
They are seeking a breakthrough: Data show, Haskell said, that student performance at Mastery schools improves at a steady clip for the schools’ first few years but then “plateaus,” with gains more difficult to attain.
Looking at root causes
What staff has learned about reactions to trauma has also spurred a rethinking of disciplinary practices, according to John Widmer, Mastery’s director of culture.
Mastery has touted its successes in turning around low-achieving, out-of-control schools through structure, remediation, and orderliness. Now there’s an added emphasis, said Widmer: exploring with students the root causes of the “wrong behavior.”
“Before, there were consequences. Now, there are consequences but with support,” he said.
Where the consequences previously were one-size-fits-all, teachers now have options. In the lower grades, the student might be directed to the peace corner for “time and space to reflect,” said Widmer. In upper grades, a dean might tell the student to take a breath in the hallway.
Teachers are encouraged to utilize restorative circles. The child acting out is asked to think about who is impacted and to find a way to make amends. All the remedies emphasize collaborative problem-solving.
There are anecdotes speaking to the success of the approach.
“Sometimes, kids actually give themselves consequences,” said Natalie Catin, Cleveland’s principal for K-5. Students have written letters of apology to teachers, peers, even parents.
“Instead of a demerit, or detention, we can have a restorative circle, we can have a conference,” said Jean Carn-Wolfe, assistant principal of school culture K-5 at Cleveland. “Just giving a punitive response doesn’t always get to a behavior change, and that’s the goal – right? – to change behavior.”
Nadine King, a parent volunteer, has two adopted children at Cleveland. The children at a young age witnessed the difficult divorce of their parents, have been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress, and receive therapy at school, according to King.
“The peace corner – I love it,” she said. “The teachers give them that time and that space and that understanding.” Teachers are being successful in talking with children about feelings and upsets.
“Most kids don’t want to tell you this or tell you that. But my kids are getting more verbal. The teachers have them talking more about their feelings. ... It’s amazing that you can get a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old to express themselves like that.” She said she’s seen a change in habits and more respect. “And after what they went through, sometimes that’s difficult.”
Mastery’s efforts have won the support of Leslie Lieberman, director of Multiplying Connections, a nonprofit group in Philadelphia that trains professionals in trauma-informed techniques.
“They’ve engaged in a lot of training at all levels, which I think is essential,” said Lieberman. “Now they’re integrating this into all their activities – educational practices, counseling practices, policies and protocols.”
But a trauma-informed transformation is a long process, she noted – taking at least three to five years “to fully make that organizational change.”
Mastery’s efforts appear to be bolstered by the sheer numbers of senior staff already in each building – a hallmark of the charter organization’s management approach – though there was no new funding for the trauma initiative, according to a spokesperson.
Cleveland, in its third year under Mastery, has a 10-member leadership team, including two social workers, for 755 K-8 students. Thomas, which opened a year ago and draws 90 percent of its 667 K-6 students from South Philadelphia, has a lead team of six, including an assistant principal for school culture and two social workers. Most schools have a therapist and all have a nurse, said Haskell. Students also participate in small-group and individual therapy, as needed.
In August, Mastery won a three-year, $4.8 million federal grant for school improvement at the Gratz 6-12 campus. Haskell said the plan includes trauma-informed work.
The more adults who are trained and able to work with children, the better, said Lieberman, citing the work of neuroscientist Bruce Perry, an authority on children in crisis. His research shows that children benefit not just from quality adult relationships, but from many adult relationships. “It’s the quality but it’s also the quantity that matters,” Lieberman said.
Scott, the 4th grader, described how his teacher might separate two children who are arguing, sending one to the classroom peace corner while a second adult escorts the other child to the social workers’ office.
His friend Yahmir said he appreciated how “there are people here that can help me … and when somebody says something to me, I keep it in my head so it can help me at home.”
Scott, who has been at Cleveland since kindergarten, recalled the school as unruly before Mastery took over.
“I feel safe,” he said, “because all these adults who are here can help me still be friends with the person I’m arguing with.”