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Mastery Charter summer school dilemma

By Samuel Reed III on Aug 3, 2010 12:41 PM

Kagiso "grasshopper son" off to college

If you have followed my posts about charter schools you may surmise that I am both a supporter and detractor of charter schools. Now, I have a personal dilemma with Mastery Charter Schools' summer school program and I am asking my readers for some advice.

In a previous post I wrote about my support of Mastery Charter School because it holds students to rigorous standards. My grasshopper son, Kagiso–he calls me Papa San--did not meet Mastery’s standards so he had to do a 5th year in high school. 

While at Mastery’s Lenfest Campus he had an Achilles heel: math. He did not apply himself and had to repeat a math class. Because he had mastered all his other subjects, he was offered three Advanced Placement (AP) classes in addition to his required senior project, Spanish II, and pre-calculus.

I will be the first to admit, Kagiso was a marginal student in high school. So was I for that matter. That’s why I liked Mastery. They hold students to a higher than normal standard. Being marginal is not acceptable. Students must obtain 76 percent and above to receive passing grade in a course. If students obtain 75 percent and below, they must repeat the class. In principle I have no argument with this policy.

Because Kagiso had mastered all his other subjects except math, he had exceeded the standard academic credits required for graduation per the school's policy when he entered as a freshman. However, I didn’t mind him doing an additional year. I figured he would have more time to mature and become better prepared for college. 

The fact that he had AP classes was also great. He had AP classes in English, psychology, and chemistry. He reluctantly agreed to take the AP chemistry class. Because Mastery has limited class offerings there was no other course available for him. However, his heart was not in AP chemistry. He had passed general chemistry and physics and wanted to spend more time focusing on his Achilles heel. I still can’t figure out for the life of me how he could get an 86 percent in physics and struggle in math.

Halfway through the school year, Kagiso complained, “Papa San, I want out of AP chemistry; I am not even going to take the exam for college credit." Because he was a 5th year senior, I wanted him to take the initiative to resolve his dilemma. I encouraged him to write a letter to his school. I was trying to treat him like he was already in college. Let him redress his academic issues on his own.

He wrote the letter, and requested to drop the AP chemistry class. He proposed to drop the AP chemistry course to focus on his credit recovery for pre-calculus so that he could avoid summer school again.

His proposal was not accepted. He ended up not making any effort in his AP chemistry class and was not successful in his credit recovery efforts for his pre-calculus class. The math Achilles heel struck again!

Mastery prides itself on making students college ready. Despite Kagiso's bumps along the way, he is a bright and articulate student. He maintained a positive outlook and even had a great Senior Service Learning Project at the Notebook. He is looking forward to attending college, he will attend Dean College, where he plans to major in communications and minor in theater. However, because he didn’t pass his pre-calculus class or his AP chemistry class, Mastery expected him to retake both classes for summer school.

He agreed with the school requirement of attending summer school to make up the math credit to obtain his official diploma. But he disagreed with having to take a chemistry class for summer school to make up for not passing AP chemistry. With my guidance, Kagiso had made a good faith effort to handle his dilemma. But I realized I needed to get more involved. 

I spoke with the Assistant Principal Mr. Kohler about Kagiso needing to take a chemistry summer class that he had formally requested to drop. I noted that the AP chemistry class was above and beyond the standard graduation or college entrance requirements. Kohler explained that the graduation requirements had changed and students must master all classes they take. When I asked what Mastery would do if Kagiso refused to take the chemistry class, Kohler’s response was that Kagiso would have to repeat the entire school year and thus not receive his official diploma.

I contacted Israel Steen from the District’s Office of Charter Schools and she made inquiries on Kagiso’s behalf. I conferred with Len Rieser from the Education Law Center-PA to inquire if Kagiso could find an advocate to help him resolve his dilemma. On the first day of summer school I had my teacher colleague Bonnee Breese accompany Kagiso to advocate on his behalf. I even left messages with Mastery’s CEO, Scott Gordon, and spoke with Mastery Charter Chief Academic Officer Jefferey Pestrak.

I explained to Pestrak that Kagiso was in agreement to take the pre-calculus class, but was not satisfied with the decision to retake the chemistry class. I asked Pestrak to have Mastery Lenfest’s administration reconsider its position. Pestrak said, he would speak with the Lenfest administrators and someone would respond directly to Kagiso.

Mastery Lenfest officials had already dug their heels in the sand; they were not going to budge. When Breese tried to reason with Kohler why Kagiso didn't need to take the chemistry class, he kept pointing out “that it’s only 20 days." Summer school ran from July 5 through the July 30.

Kagiso is blessed to have savvy parents. But I wonder what happens with students whose parents are less savvy. When intractable dilemmas arise at charter schools do they simply return to traditional public schools? Hence the perception that charters force families out that don’t fit their mold.

I think I helped Kagiso handle his dilemma with sophistication and class, but he’s leaving Mastery with a feeling of being bullied into taking a chemistry class in the summer that he never wanted to take and didn’t need to take in the first place. And because Mastery serves a predominantly low-income minority population, I wonder how a case like Kagiso’s would have been resolved if Mastery was serving more wealthy or affluent students. I further wonder how Mastery Charter’s administrators would have handled this matter if their child was Kagiso.

I am interested in what advice readers of my blog have to offer. Maybe I should have had Kagiso try a different approach, or maybe I should not have intervened at all?

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Comments (26)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 3, 2010 4:04 pm

Wow! This is why so many students drop out of high school. That is probably what would happen to students without a savvy parent. I believe you did exactly the right thing with your child by having him attempt to resolve the issue on his own and then intervening on his behalf. What I can't understand is if your child has met all other state requirements for graduation, why couldn't he take a reduced course load and either work or take college classes? This school is obviously more concerned with their standards and guidelines than what's in your child's best interest. Fortunately, your child is resilient and you are his advocate. Wish you both the best.

Submitted by Dawud (not verified) on August 3, 2010 4:48 pm

Maybe I need a course on reading comprehension, but I don't see any mention of the AP chemistry course being REQUIRED. You say Mastery "offered" the courses to Kagiso and he accepted and committed to taking them. Only way I see this as a legit beef is if the school made the AP courses a requirement when he only need to take one class to graduate. It's been a while but from my understanding, high schools do not allow you to "drop courses" like a university would, so once Kagiso committed to taking those courses he was accountable for finishing them. I'm assuming this is the argument the school took.

Submitted by Kagiso's brother (not verified) on August 3, 2010 4:28 pm

I agree with the first post. Why take AP classes if they are not preparing you take AP exams?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 3, 2010 5:38 pm

Mastery would lose if this were a battle in court. If Kagiso has the requisite number of courses in all the right subject areas, they cannot hold him back from graduating. He needs 23.5 credits with three from math, three from science and a seventh from either math or science.

The probable reason for Mastery's decision is because kids get to senior year and don't need a "full" program, and schools don't want to give seniors tons of free time. So their policy is a way to combat "senioritis," but it wouldn't hold up in court.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 20, 2011 7:51 pm

I've seen seniors take classes during the school year to fill in the time, but to hold one back from graduation from one of these time fillers, I have never seen. I'd think they'd be electives if course requirements have been met. Mastery is not a public school, so I suppose herein lies the difference.

Submitted by Observer (not verified) on August 3, 2010 5:41 pm

Unbelievable! Seems to me you and your son went the extra mile and then about 100 more. If this had been my child I would have been extremely angry: AP chemistry wasn't required, your child had already passed regular chemistry, your child wanted to focus on math deficits, etc. I find this whole episode astounding -- I haven't read or heard much about charter school policies and procedures so this is new to me. BTW, my son-in-law taught for a few years at a very expensive Main Line private school, and I am sure this would never have occurred there, no matter the race, color, creed, or income level (those schools give a few full scholarships.) Out there, the parent rules!

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on August 3, 2010 5:45 pm

Thank you for your comments. We tried to use persuasive argument without using lawyers. Our rhetorical skills were not up to the task. However, it still think it was a great lesson for Kagiso. In my next blog I plan to have a Q & A. With Jay Heirich, the author of the book, "Thank You for Arguing". Maybe we will learn some more tactics  for waging an argument with an intractable policy .

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 3, 2010 6:23 pm

Wow. Did you read through your blog before you posted it? As a parent of a recent Mastery graduate I am absolutely appalled!!!!
This is a REQUIRED class. Refusal to take the class SHOULD result in repeating. Regardless that you feel he should not have to take this class since it has no bearing on his future in communications is irrelevant. Your little grasshopper made an attempt to "drop" a class that is required to graduate in order to focus on "recovering" credits from another class he did not excel in. He still failed both! Your child made the CHOICE not to make an effort and his failure is not fault of Mastery. You, as his father, should have taken a more active approach in helping him succeed in both classes rather than wasting time trying to bend the rules! Mastery Charter High School thrives on excellence and works to ensure each and every student receive the best education. Mastery Charter High School teachers & staff are there to work with you - not against you - to ensure he is a success! The mere suggestion that your financial status in any way, shape or form had anything to do with the outcome is completely off-base and completely false. Sounds like a cop-out to me.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 15, 2011 10:41 pm

I don't understand your comment. AP chemistry was not a requirement. Maybe it is you who needs a lesson in reading comprehension.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 3, 2010 8:59 pm

Flexibility was supposed to be a hallmark of charters; in practice it is not. Too many charter parents act like their kids are in private school, and forget that their charter-schooled children attend public schools.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on August 3, 2010 8:01 pm

I agree with the first poster here that the school should have been able to work something out to meet your son's needs. Life is just not completely inflexible... You did the right thing by teaching him to advocate for himself. This is a skill that he will most definitely need later in life.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 4, 2010 5:25 am

Can this district make up it's mind" We go from not being allowed to give homework at Gratz and no lower than a 50, still in practice despite what is said downtown, to ridiculous standards as in this situation. When is this district EVER going to put the needs of the individual child ahead of the games and politics. I love the idea of holding kids accountable- which Mastery is doing, but we still have to work with what is the best for the success of the child. Especially with courses that they are forced into because of rostering problems ( first and foremost reason they get stuck with courses they don't want or need), or just to fill in a space. The young man is not a slacker- he worked hard and has goals- why mess with his future over a class that he doesn't not need? The School district of Philadelphia goes from the sublime to the ridiculous- can reason and justice be interjected somewhere in the "official" policies? Good luck to your son!
Susan Roth

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 4, 2010 9:49 am

Kaching!!! Keep kids in high school for five years...get five years of public funding. I would have yanked my child out, taken the transcript to the school district and gotten him a diploma. does every kid have to excel in every subject? good way, too, to keep your test scores high -- keep well-functioning kids in school longer. what a rip off.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on August 4, 2010 9:49 am

Follow the money.
I was wondering what Mastery got for each summer school student... Hum?

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on August 4, 2010 9:53 am

Charter schools have to fund their summer school programs. They don't get "extra" money from the School District. Why not ask how the SDP spent $47 million. Will we ever know how many students actually attended? (SBIS were only asked to bring in the enrollment numbers - not attendance.)

Submitted by Teacher in the trenches (not verified) on August 4, 2010 11:21 am

I know. Children who were dropped due to non attendance made sudden reappearances in the last week, too.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on August 4, 2010 11:26 am

I'm sure the SDP is padding the numbers for "SLAM." They have to justify the bill. Whether or not students learned much is another issue. If my neighbors are any indication, they took a lot of tests.

Submitted by Teacher in the trenches (not verified) on August 4, 2010 2:19 pm

This is not a secret.
There was a test booklet for reading and math for the voyager company with in the first two days. These were repeated on day eleven and day 20ish.
There was a reading and math acuity test for grades three through 8 at the start and end of the program. The acuity test at the end was administered for the coming year, not the one that was completed in June even though the beginning test was the June level.
If reading and math were completed on the same day for each test, that's five days of testing in a 22 day program. Oh, but don't worry... everyone was expected to keep moving forward in the curriculum, too on those days... in spite of the testing and the temperatures.
I cannot attest to anything above grade 8. Sorry.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on August 4, 2010 9:13 am

You need to take a bow as a parent. You handled this well, as did your son.. AP classes are offered, not required. If that new policy stating every student had to pass everything was initiated, it was the schools' responsibility to inform both the parents and the student of such a huge shift in policy. Since they obviously did not, they cannot hold your son to that policy. Good for you.

Submitted by Sam (not verified) on August 4, 2010 7:48 pm


Thank you. To clarify, Mastery did inform parents and students of the change in policy. But the fact that Kagiso was a 5th year senior, and the policy did not exist when he entered, should have been compelling enough for them to reconsider his case as a unique situation.

I appreciate all the responses. As one poster noted this was a complex case. Part of my reason for sharing this case was to have post mortem on our argument approach. Learning how to wage an effective argument could be useful for other families.

Kagiso did take and pass his summer school chemistry and pre calculus classes. Hopefully he took notes along his high school journey and will avoid or minimize some of the mistakes he made at Mastery.

Submitted by OMGWhat'sNext? (not verified) on August 4, 2010 2:06 pm

Well, this is a complex situation. One thing I think is that, if high school is indeed meant to prepare students for college, and since, as we all know, students are allowed to drop college classes that they feel were bad choices, then shouldn't high schools allow students to practice this technique of honing their own education, especially in senior year?
Another thing I would say, though, is that I do feel maybe this is one of the consequences of abandoning true public education, where perhaps there's been more time to establish precedent, although I am equally sure there were rewards.
Finally, I think perhaps Sam, of whom I am fond, did do too much for his son, and should have allowed Kagiso to fight his own battle. This is a tough one though. This year, in my son's charter school, there was some bullying of my child and one or two other students who shared that they didn't believe in God. Even their teacher jumped in on the God-side.
After thought and discussion with others, I ended up leaving it alone. I wanted my son to try to fight his own battle. And, after teaching for a while, I have found that bullying is insidious and hard to address.
But I mean no disrespect to the choices of another parent.
Thanks for sharing this very interesting topic.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 20, 2011 7:41 pm

Just an opinion but the teacher should NOT have jumped in on any side. What you jump in on is the bullying itself , not a religious preference. Sorry, I am just seeing these from last year.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 15, 2011 10:34 pm

Thanks for sharing this one anecdote of experience at Mastery Charter. It is enough for me to affirm that it's not the right place for me to teach at (I've been googling mastery links to determine whether I should apply there). I understand setting the goal of each student mastering each class, but I think that this should be within the framework of basic requirements, not classes above and beyond the content that is required to graduate (AP Chem was not a required course to graduate high school). In addition, your son petitioned the school to pull out of AP Chem, but the school refused. From your comments, it seems that you are saying that you feel that you could have improved your skills in debating/arguing. I think they were being irrational ("only 20 days") and I hope you aren't beating yourself up for not being able to instantaneously reply to irrational (or even rational) arguments. It is hard to clearly expose lack of logic and injustice -- especially when the person you are trying to persuade is the perpetrator. Often conflicts can only be resolved through a detached, third party after the plaintiff understands what s/he is up against. I'm going on and on because I've been wronged before (by an educational organization) and am trying to find a good fit for me to be an educator. I guess I'm somewhat disappointed to find yet again, another educational organization acting out of the wrong interests.

Submitted by hd pvr (not verified) on September 2, 2013 7:13 am
Today, I went to the beach front with my children. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said "You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear." She put the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely off topic but I had to tell someone!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 2, 2013 7:13 am
My question is this, will you be back to attend the meeting tonight? If not, put the shell up to your ear and let the hermit crab bite some sense into your ear!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 14, 2012 9:46 pm

Folks, Please give this man a break he is a good man and probably doing more to change this city than you ever will. In him addressing this small issue I see no wrong. It's brave enough for him to stand up for his son like this. Maybe some of you need to stand up for your children, grown some backbone. Also Q.T.I.P. (Quit Taking It Personally).

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