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Veteran educator visits Mastery-Smedley; finds 'order,' smiles

By Guest blogger on Mar 8, 2012 06:08 PM
Photo: Rich Migliore

My warm welcome to Mastery-Smedley.

This guest blog post comes from Rich Migliore, a frequent Notebook commenter and veteran teacher and administrator.


I recently had the opportunity to visit Mastery-Smedley Elementary in Frankford. Brook Lenfest, a member of Mastery’s Board of Trustees, had invited me to visit a Mastery school to see for myself what it does for children.

There has been much heated debate lately about Mastery so I approached my visit as a learner. I wanted to see Mastery-Smedley through the eyes of an educator who has spent over 35 years in schools and in classrooms.

During my time working in schools, I served as a teacher, assistant principal, summer school principal, reading department chair, PFT building representative, and governance council chair at schools like University City High, Mastbaum, and Furness. I have visited more than 100 schools and thousands of classrooms, and I looked forward to the chance to visit another type of school.

The visit

Two bright smiles greeted me when I arrived at Smedley a half hour early for my 10:00 a.m. appointment. I then met two of the cutest little girls with their sparkling bright eyes and charming smiles as they walked through the halls in their Mastery blue uniform shirts. They paused to say hello and were thrilled when I asked if I could take their picture. A picture really is worth a thousand words, and their smiles reminded me of why we love schools so much.

The principal, Brian McLaughlin, was in the hallway so I introduced myself and struck up a conversation as we walked to a conference room where I also met his assistant principal of instruction, Rickia Reid. They are young, bright, and proud of Smedley. We chatted a bit as we waited for Brook and CEO Scott Gordon to arrive. The school leaders spoke of their efforts to meet the challenges and needs of students including their health needs. They explained that Smedley has “systems and procedures” in place when it comes to instruction and coaches its teachers well.

As I walked through the school and its classrooms, I had no script or checklists, I only had my eyes, my ears, and my camera.

I was struck by the orderliness of Smedley and its modernness.

It certainly was an orderly environment “conducive for learning.” The hallways were neat, clean, bright, freshly painted, waxed, and all sparkly with posters, student work of all sorts, and inspirational quotations posted throughout the schoolhouse. I passed one small group of eight students who had been brought out into the hallway for specialized small group reading instruction led by a teaching assistant. They were calm and orderly as they sat in their chairs in a tight little circle outside the classroom door, even as they talked quietly to each other in the friendly little way of kids.

Inside, the classrooms were orderly, too, and yes, they were some of the most modern classrooms I have ever seen in my lifetime.

I controlled my feelings of envy:

  • Most classrooms had brand-new foam mats where the students could sit on the floor as the teacher led instruction.

  • Almost every classroom had a neat, little row of eight or so new-looking computers.

  • All classrooms had new blue rectangular tables for two or three students to sit at on either side.

  • They had the most modern projectors I have seen in schools anywhere.

  • All classrooms had new white boards and all teachers appeared to have markers galore to write on them – and everything else they could ever need.

They also had small class sizes that most teachers can only dream of. All classes I visited had a maximum of 22 students in them except for one, which had 25. Most classes had fewer than 20 students.

clutterYes, the classrooms were all full of clutter all over every wall and in every nook and cranny. They had chairs, benches, and bookshelves filled with classroom libraries and stuff. They had the kinds of “good clutter” and “good stuff” which are found in our best classrooms everywhere and are necessary to inspire, enhance, demonstrate, inform, and reward achievement. They even had color codes for students to know how well they were doing with their work.

But what struck me was how neatly arranged all of the clutter was. It was orderly clutter! It was as if the teachers had been given a neat test before they were hired. I would have failed that test because my clutter was never neatly lined up in my classroom. My clutter was cluttery clutter – there were books and magazines everywhere.

Even the teachers were highly organized. You could tell instruction was very “structured” and routine permeated their culture. The staff was proud of their structure and systems, and they believe their students need structure in their lives. They certainly have structure in Smedley.

The teachers were all young, vibrant, and bright-eyed. They were pleasant and so were their students who were, you guessed it – orderly! But they still were kids. As I spent time in their classrooms, they peeked over, looked at me, smiled, and loved to have their pictures taken. They even sat on their mats in an orderly manner. When I interrupted their instruction, they even playfully smiled over at me – orderly.

I visited their creative writing class. The students were sitting in neat rows of blue tables. They even had their hands folded together as they shared their writing in a whole class, teacher-led manner.

Then I visited two classrooms for autistic students. One class was taking a break and there were three adults for about seven students. Two students were throwing a foam ball to each other. They even did that orderly. The atmosphere was warm and cozy.

I couldn’t find disorder anywhere I looked – just structure. I also found a pleasant, friendly atmosphere with kids and adults with smiles. And yes, the students did walk through the hallways in rows led by teachers or assistants. It seemed normal to them – part of their structure.

What I saw at Smedley during my too-short visit was a really good school with a young and enthusiastic staff that had everything they needed to work their art and craft.

My reflections

Going into this visit, I wanted to shed any biases I may have had. In my study of education, including the charter movement and state takeover, I have gained a strong belief that our schools must be led collaboratively and collegially. Democratic leadership and governance is what will allow them to become great schools which function as true professional learning communities and serve the best interests of students and their school communities.

I wanted to share my experience on this visit so that we might move our collective focus more on the issue of what we are doing for children instructionally. We spend too much dialogue on the passionate issues of governance and not enough on the issues of teaching and learning and what is best for children.

As I drove away, I thought about all of the good things I saw going on at Smedley, and I thought about all of our issues in education and all of the issues we converse about as concerned citizens and educators.

I thought about Commissioner Lorene Cary and the metaphor she drew at a School Reform Commission meeting as she discussed the new Great Schools Compact to promote cooperation between the District and charter schools. She asked something like this: “Let me understand what we are doing here. We are all in this little sandbox. And now we are going to play nice in our sandbox?” An inquisitive feeling came over me as I thought of some questions for Cary.

Shouldn’t we also be friendly in our sandbox?

And, shouldn’t we all learn to share in this sandbox?

And, how are we going to learn to trust each other in our little sandbox?

It seems to me, if we really care about our children first, shouldn’t we be sharing what works for children? After all, whose sandbox are we in?

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Comments (77)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 8, 2012 8:27 pm

The real question is: what is preventing public schools from having small class sizes and all the resources we need?

We all know exactly where the problem lies. The SDP spends too much money in the wrong places, and does not emphasize school-based staff enough. Why can't we have class sizes of less than 20? Why can't we stop buying our own pencils, paper, and markers? Why can't we have the resources our children need?

We all know the answer. Why won't anyone listen?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 8, 2012 8:37 pm

I am happy to see that your visit to Mastery was more than what you expected. However, what saddens me is the fact that the efforts that were placed into forming these charter schools took much more predence than repairing and renewing the schools that already exist in our district. No one seems to want to claim ownership for this. Yet, one by one, our schools will fall into the hands of yet another charter school. I am a firm believer that our schools can work. However, we need the right tools to work with. Order and stability comes from the willingness that students have to actually "be" in school and "wanting to learn". We need parents to start taking responsibility for their children's actions, and play a positive role in their child's education. I am not ready to "crown Mastery the "Victor" yet. Unlike the public schools, charters can afford to be selective of the students they wish to attend there. Our public schools, however, are not at liberty to dismiss students, and we must differentiate our instruction in order to cater to the discipline, behavioral and emotional problems that exist in our classrooms. I love my job, and I hope to do it for a long time. However, when will the playing field become fair? I don't want to see Public Education become an "alternative educational" forum. I believe that public schools can work, but we need the same support that the charters are getting. You raise another point, Rich, in that "all the teachers are young". I am vibrant teacher who is committed and passionate about teaching. Yet, I am over 30, and not one of the "select few" chosen to teach at one of their schools. There is a lot of talent among teachers over 30---myself included. Instead of praise being given for time and experience, teachers over a certain age are deemed as "dinosaurs". The more I am in teaching, the more I am seeing this. I have learned a great deal from teachers that have experience that far outweighs mine. How sad of a day it is that "youth" supercedes time and experience. Thank you for your reflection. I enjoyed reading it.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 9, 2012 7:49 am

For the record: I know and have seen many teachers in their 30's,40's, 50's and even 60's who are still young, vibrant and inspirational to their students. There are awesome teachers of all ages.

The issue of the value of experienced teachers in a school community should be on the top burner of our debates.

Interestingly, Marc Manella, CEO of KIPP in Philadelphia, said to me that he was a Teach for America product and he was unprepared for teaching in urban schools when he first entered our profession.

As a result of your comment, I went to bed last night thinking of the best lessons I have seen teachers teach over the years, and I saw a whole lot of gray hair amongst the ten best lessons I ever observed.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 8, 2012 9:00 pm

I agree, money should be spent on improving schools that are already running instead of turning them over to an outside company and then having a lottery for students to get in. Don't ALL students and all teachers deserve the same resources?? We are creating SEGRAGATION!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 8, 2012 9:59 pm

Having once spent a year at Smedley working under a man-hating load of a principal it is easy to see why any new operators would be an improvement. Too bad the school district couldn't be bothered to buy new things for its public school teachers. Guess there's no money in it when teachers don't believe in kicking back. We couldn't even get keys to the building and would often have to spend 5-minutes or longer with our kids in line while waiting for somebody to come along and open the door. No charter should be open without a public school given the same resources at the same time. Force charters to keep problem kids the same way the public schools do or grant public schools the same ease in jettisoning problems students.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on March 9, 2012 3:42 am

Mastery and Aspira have in school programs which remove disruptive / uncooperative students from the general school population. This will create more "orderly" classrooms /halls. Will all Philadelphia schools begin this practice? What happens when a parent of a student with an IEP complains it is "not the least restrictive environment?"
No one is ever able to get 100% of students every day to comply no matter the structure - at least not middle school and older. Apparently that happened at Mastery Gratz yesterday.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 13, 2012 3:55 pm

This is not true.I am a Mastery parent and we still have all the student that were in that school before Mastery took over and more.We have a long waiting list for students that want come in, if disruptive students were rooted out there would not be a long waiting list. Mastery only showed the student there is an opposite word for 'chaos' ant it is achievable in a school environment.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 9, 2012 5:26 am

There is no question that many Charters like Mastery are great for kids and provide an environment where teachers can love their jobs. The only question and the true root of all debate is why does it take profiting a businessman to achieve this.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 10, 2012 2:10 pm

Just got one of Mastery's problem students that they couldn't handle. Mastery gets breaks that public schools are denied. Level the playing field and we will see if Mastery can keep up.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 9, 2012 5:32 am

Thanks for the article. I worked at a pretty bad charter for a couple years and now with the district for a few in a school I like to characterize as "top of the bottom." I'd love to work at a Mastery school and hope the charterization pace accelerates. The major difference I see in the district is zero accountability for teachers and staff. When teachers must prove themselves every day they outperform not underperform.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 9, 2012 9:05 am

Then please, by all means, GO BACK AND TEACH AT A CHARTER SCHOOL. Some of us still care and want to improve the system. School is not a business whose fortune should be made at the expense of children, and follow different rules in the same process. Go back! It will save a job for another teacher that wants to stay come next year!

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on March 9, 2012 6:56 am

Why won't Mastery welcome unionization? Unionization is the only way to ensure due process. Unionization also ensures teachers have some buffer against administration.

Submitted by Current Mastery Teacher (not verified) on March 10, 2012 11:37 pm

As a current Mastery teacher, I would actually leave if Mastery welcomed unionization. I taught at a district school for a few years before coming to Mastery and it was an absolutely eye-opening experience. A teacher across the hall was out every other week for a few days, a teacher across the hall sat and read the newspaper almost every day while his/her students just did as they pleased, the teacher next door to me asked me cover his/her class during my prep claiming that they had to use the restroom, but was in fact smoking weed outside, and the other two teachers on my floor were department heads and could not control their classes. So much for trying to learn from the best!

Am I stating that every district teacher and school is horrible? No way! But what I am saying is that without unionization, these folks would probably feel more accountable or leave, the latter being the best choice for the students. At Mastery, folks are given a considerable amount of support if they are struggling and others are not asked back if they are no longer, or were never, a mission/organizational fit or their students are not progressing/learing in an unsafe enviornment. Maybe it's the cool-aid or maybe it's just the fact that I love that everyone is working their tails-off, not just a select few.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 11, 2012 9:22 am

Grow a pair and name names or no one will believe those lies.

Submitted by Current Mastery Teacher (not verified) on March 11, 2012 10:30 pm

There is no need to prove myself to you. If you are an educator, there is no doubt that there were teachers in your building in front of students and you questioned why they were allowed to even step foot in the door. Tenure and a union allow this to happen, which is unfortunate for our students.

Submitted by One of the Good Ones (not verified) on March 11, 2012 12:22 pm

Let's see if you have the same opinion when you are out of a job in five years because you are no longer "young and vibrant". Mastery actually has a paragraph on their website that brags about having 100 percent of teacher turnover. Good luck!

Submitted by Current Mastery Teacher (not verified) on March 11, 2012 10:02 pm

Maybe I should be worried since I am in my 30's and have been with Mastery for 5+ years! Give me a break.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 13, 2012 2:10 pm

Mastery WILL NOT keep you. Your time with them is most likely running out. Start applying to the other Charters. Oh wait . . . they don't want you either.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 11, 2012 1:28 pm

So all these activities you saw at your old school were the union's fault? Sounds like your principal was not on top of things. Lousy teachers was the problem there. 7 incidents of absences is ground for firing. That one teacher taking off should have been gone in the 3rd or 4th month if they were really out that much. Sorry, but too much of your letter sounds like a Mastery administrative plant. We all know about great teachers that were fired because they dared to ask questions the administration wants covered up, not because of any poor teaching performance.

Submitted by Current Mastery Teacher (not verified) on March 11, 2012 10:55 pm

You caught me red-handed! Mastery admin definitely contacted me and asked that I write my post. Or could I actually be an administrator at Mastery? LOL! Why the hell would you or someone you know want to work in an environment where folks are living in fear of speaking up?

Also, lousy teaching was one of the problems here, but those folks cannot be touched since they had tenure. The other issues that I spoke about were egregious offenses that should have been handled by the principal.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 11, 2012 1:03 pm

Don't worry honey, when you hit the "over 35" bracket--watch how they will find fault with your work. You'll be making too much money. And yes! you won't have union representation! Good luck!

Submitted by citizen (not verified) on March 9, 2012 8:31 am

Smedley does sound like a showcase for what Mastery can do. Let's grant that some elite charters can, on a small scale, run public neighborhood schools in a beneficial way. This does not translate into a large-scale model for an urban system like ours. It does not translate into a model for a democratic society. See http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/mar/22/how-and-how-not-imp...

Submitted by Anon, anon, we must go anon.... (not verified) on March 9, 2012 9:36 am

I am glad the school is working out so well for its students. However, all most of us have been concerned about is having a level playing field with schools that are supposed to be "public". The Mastery "neighborhood" schools are allowed to do things that regular district neighborhood schools are not. For example, they can fund an in-house discipline room or academy, we cannot. They can cap class sizes at 25 or so, we cannot. They have money to do capital improvements, hire school security, buy new computers, we do not. I know for a fact that Mastery at Mann (a "neighborhood" school) refused to admit a student who lives in the catchment this week. A neighborhood school (with the exception of Penn Alexander) is usually NEVER allowed by the district to refuse admission to the school NO MATTER how overcrowded it is. These are the inequities that need to be dealt with before we can compare charters to district schools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 9, 2012 10:24 am

Neighborhood schools that are overcrowded can and do turn away students - the parents just don't get their picture in the paper complaining about it. There was already a district policy in place to deal with students unable to enroll at PAS but the parents didn't LIKE the policy.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on March 9, 2012 11:15 pm

Perhaps, but the district has always been very selective about which schools can turn kids a way for overcrowding. They do not let every school do this. if they did, there would not be so many over-crowded schools in the Northeast section of the city. The fact remains that Mastery can 'cap' classes at 25, and regular district schools can only cap classes at 30 (K-3) and 33 (4-12)--therefore charters still have the advantage.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 10, 2012 10:43 am

Right, but the district's policy is generally to refer students to the next closest school. If all the next closest schools are overcrowded too like in the Northeast, it's kind of pointless to turn kids away.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 9, 2012 10:31 am

Am I the only one who's a little appalled at the criteria this "veteran educator" seems to be using to judge the success of a school? He reveals his low expectations right there in the title: "...finds 'order', smiles". The article itself says so much about cute little children exhibiting excellent behavior inside of well-decorated classrooms, but is that really what makes students succeed? Mastery is an amazing organization, so why no mention of the high-quality, rigorous, data-driven instruction that really underlies their success? The fact that the author was so distracted by orderly behavior and pretty decorations is frightening to me, and I'm suspicious that he's not the only administrator in our city who doesn't know the difference between a well-managed and a well-educated child. I know excellent instruction goes on at Mastery; it's a shame this article didn't give praise where it's really due.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 9, 2012 10:38 am

I have no idea but maybe the author did not see the "high quality, rigorous, data driven instruction" you claim happens at Mastery. What makes Mastery's instruction "rigorous?" What is "data driven" other than test prep? What is "high quality?" What is "excellent instruction?"

While I agree we have many administrators, especially those who run the regional offices and the current curriculum staff, have little background in instruction, that doesn't mean this former administrator saw what you claim is happening at Mastery.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 9, 2012 12:58 pm

OOOOhhhh... Now you have opened up this discussion and I already see that some of my fine colleagues have been responding.

(1) I suggest you read the blog a little more deeply and brush up on your inferential comprehension. Focus on the end, you might be able to discover the main idea.

(2) What makes you think that anywhere in the article I suggest that is "the criteria" for a good school or a great school community. However, the literature and research is endless on the necessity of a school providing an orderly and safe environment as a prerequisite for effective instruction to occur. Health services are part of that rubric, too.

(3) I was only afforded the opportunity to be in the school for one hour which, if you read perceptively, was "too-short."

(4) This was not an investigative reporting piece or a Middlle States Evaluation of Mastery's instructional practices and organizational proficiency. Nor was it an analytical review of your data. However, I must say that because of space we had to cut out this part of the article: "Mastery stands behind its data." Now if you want me to do a comprehensive critical analysis of Mastery's data, I would be happy to do so. I assure you I am more than qualified to give you a complete and unbiased analysis. It was a quick and guided visit.

(5) Now if you would like me to spend 5 days freely observing, talking to teachers, students, parents, and administrators and write a fifty page analysis of the quality of your school and its instructional practices, that would be possible.

(6) And for a history lesson, we were doing diagnostic-prescriptive instruction and collaborative data analysis 35 years ago in our district. The terms and practices of "data driven" and "rigorous" instruction were coined long before the state takeover of our schools and the creation of Mastery Charter Schools.

That is not to take away from the excellent practices at Mastery or that Mastery was one of our first successful "true charter schools." I would certainly not denigrate the "Mastery team." It certainly does not take away from all of the good things I saw happening at Smedley.

My task was to report to the Notebook community what I actually saw -- and that was it.

I congratulate the teachers and administrators at Smedley -- and those cute little kids.

Submitted by MBA to M'ed Mom (not verified) on April 13, 2012 8:22 pm

Please go back and investigate the curriculm and parental engagement and how the students are performing!! Orderly doesn't mean the children are learning anything. You can bully and frighten children into being orderly and not teach them a thing.

I am glad to see a few others were taken aback. What does orderly cute kids mean? Does it mean the children are learning at their ability? Does it mean their are engaged in school and eager to learn? Does it mean the teachers are supported and required to follow state standards and professional requirements that make them outstanding teachers with a supportive principal that fights to get them what they need? Do they feel their students are learning or are there students just quiet??

I didn't visit the elementary schools in the suburbs to see if the kids knew how to behave...please don't visit our schools in the city to see if our kids know how to behave. They are not animals. Visit them to see if they are being taught and learning, engaged and invested in education, supported and structured with good teachers and principals.

Submitted by MBA to M'ed Mom (not verified) on April 13, 2012 8:27 pm

Please go back and investigate the curriculm and parental engagement and how the students are performing!! Orderly doesn't mean the children are learning anything. You can bully and frighten children into being orderly and not teach them a thing.

I am glad to see a few others were taken aback. What does orderly cute kids mean? Does it mean the children are learning at their ability? Does it mean their are engaged in school and eager to learn? Does it mean the teachers are supported and required to follow state standards and professional requirements that make them outstanding teachers with a supportive principal that fights to get them what they need? Do they feel their students are learning or are there students just quiet??

I didn't visit the elementary schools in the suburbs to see if the kids knew how to behave...please don't visit our schools in the city to see if our kids know how to behave. They are not animals. Visit them to see if they are being taught and learning, engaged and invested in education, supported and structured with good teachers and principals.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on April 14, 2012 10:45 am

I was not invited back to investigate anything at Mastery. If you read closely it was a highly "guarded" and protected visit that was too short. I was allowed one hour. The questions you raise are exactly questions which I wanted readers to raise.

This was not a Middle States evaluation where I could spend several days talking to teachers, parents, and students and observing instructional practices closely.

Since then, I have visited Esperanza Academy who invited me in with open arms and invited me back as often and for as long as I would like to get to know them well and investigate more deeply what they do for their students. I was initially impressed with their "relaxed atmosphere" and openness. Esperanza had a relaxed, pleasant climate that was orderly in a different way. Their school and classrooms were characterized by friendliness. They have high flexibility when it comes to creativity in instruction, rostering and meeting student needs.

Every school has a "school culture" with an atmosphere and climate. Every school has what is known as an "ethos" which is like a "collective ego." While they are often similar, they are never exactly the same. Schools have personalities like people do. If you walk into schools like Furness, you can feel the positive nature of their culture when you first walk through their doors.

If you were to walk through E.M. Stanton, you would quickly feel their atmosphere and climate which is a very positive culture. They do well with AYP because of their supportive culture. Mastery Smedley had a highly structured approach. Value judgments are to made by the readers.

Good schools are about children and the relationships they have with adults and the relationships between and among adults. They are humanistic organizations. Our best schools are the ones that are pleasant places for children to be and learn and where there is a chemistry within the community of the school. Supportive cultures for students are the ones that yield the highest academic gains.

Good principals develop a "chemistry with those they lead." Growth of the whole child is necessary for a wholesome school experience which inspires achievement in academics. There are research studies after research studies which show that children learn best when their basic needs are met -- safety, security, caring, love, health and the feeling of being part of the group, etc., are prerequisites for high achievement.

As the student from Audenreid said to the SRC, "We are not experiments!" Children are more than test scores and test scores in reading and math only measure a very small part of their personal growth and achievement. Elementary schools are all about those cute little kids, the love we have for them, and their cognitive and affective growth. Big smiles, and authentic growth and achievement, are what keep us in this thing called teaching and learning and what makes our jobs worth doing.

I would love to discuss your questions with you in depth, but we are limited here. But I love your comments and appreciate them. I assure you I did not visit Smedley to see how the children behaved. I went there to see what Mastery did for them. I saw a highly structured environment and learning program with systems in place and many resources.

We need a whole bunch of Moms like you who ask the hard questions and raise crucial points! Thanks.

Submitted by MBA to M'ed Mom (not verified) on April 14, 2012 11:32 pm

Thanks! Hearing a school described as a humanistic organization is an apt description and helps me understand some of the dynamics that I witness (I used to study organizations that I worked at quite a bit after taking a course in organizational theory and behavior for my MBA lol) and gives me a perspective of schools that I can learn from.

There are a lot of parents in my neighborhood who feel as I do about our kids and their education. Unfortunately most parents aren't willing to endure the abuse I do because they are scared if they speak out, their children will be harmed at school. My child's former principal hated me, all the teachers in his school hated me, they made fun of me at meetings and willfully prevented me from volunteering by refusing to explain to me how to volunteer at his school. Other parents were made aware of how the teachers hated me, and as they have gotten to know me from play dates, and our kids sports activities, have shared what teachers at my childs school have said about me.

But we all hated the teacher and staff smoking on school property and having to walk our kids by them outside the front door as they smoked. I was the only one willing to complain and I was crucified. But I have ZERO tolerance for anyone abusing my child and I will endure anything for my child. I am ultimately accountable for the type of childhood my child has, and I need to ensure his needs including his educational needs are met.

There are a lot of parents like me, at least all the ones I hang out with are, but most are too intimidated by the teachers and staff to question something that doesn't feel right. Also they watched how badly I was treated as a parent. Even now, with me getting a master's degree in Ed, and letting a teacher know before we met to review my child's grade, this teacher had no proof of how she arrived at my child's grade and she saw nothing wrong with that. I was in the middle of my classroom assesment class at grad school and was floored by her disrespect. Couldn't she even just have faked that she had scores that made up my child's grade??

When I talked to other parents, they were aware she didn't have any proof of grades and never did over the years, but they were too intimidated to say anything. But how can my child know how to be a good student if his grades aren't real??...

Sorry, I digress... I just wanted to say, thanks, and please know there are more parents like me here in Philly, just less willing to take the insults that I do, but feel the same. And we definetely appreciate the teachers and principals who view our children with respect and are commited to their education as opposed to those who think our children are 'bad' kids and deserve to be yelled at and abused because we are bad parents also.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 15, 2012 8:14 am

Transparency in grading/assessment is an important component of students taking ownership over their learning. It is also important to keep teachers honest about grading/assessment.

The SDP (finally) started an on-line grade book for high schools this year. Unfortunately, it wasn't ready and is just now accessible for parents/students. Unfortunately, it is not mandatory. There are a few schools which use on-line grade books (SLA, Academy at Benjamin Rush, Furness) and teachers who do it on their own. Unfortunately, is it i not the norm. Hopefully, this will change in the next union contract.

Submitted by MacMaven (not verified) on April 15, 2012 9:02 am

I agree with transparency in grading, however this online gradebook was unrolled too soon with too many glitches. I'm happy it's not yet required until all of the bugs are worked out. I must still use it for final semester grades, but I also must redundantly keep another offline gradebook as a backup. (Thank goodness I had a backup because my 1st semester grades were wiped out just before the first report period due to a district course code change.) I also don't think the online gradebook is very intuitive and I'm computer literate. Until it's required and/or they clear out the bugs, I'm just entering the final semester grades because I still don't trust the system. I'm won't put all of my precious eggs in that basket. As in years past without the online system, any student/parent is welcome to contact me concerning grades.

Submitted by tom-104 on March 9, 2012 11:45 am

At the very least charters should be required to be transparent about their academic program to see if their claims match the reality. Using the criteria of the "reformers" for success (a debatable premise), charters are little different from the public schools. A report on the Chalk and Talk blog gives figures for charters that made AYP last year. 79 of Pennsylvania's 142 charters made AYP last year. 40 of Philadelphia's 73 charters made AYP last year. http://tinyurl.com/7vwpqav

Charters are a controlled experiment where the teaching and learning environment is strictly controlled both in terms of the student body of the school and the resources available. Of course you will be greeted by smiling children if children with social and emotional problems can be routinely removed from the school.

Public schools have no such controls (nor should they because all children should have an opportunity to an education) and they are chronically underfunded which means the schools cannot adequately address the social problems which are brought into the school from the society in general and therefore the academic program suffers.

Do we really want to return to separate and unequal education?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 9, 2012 2:35 pm

"Unlike the public schools, charters can afford to be selective of the students they wish to attend there. Our public schools, however, are not at liberty to dismiss students, and we must differentiate our instruction in order to cater to the discipline, behavioral and emotional problems that exist in our classrooms."

This is absolutely incorrect. Charters are prohibited by law from being "selective." This includes admitting every single student who wins the lottery (or applies, if there is still space available) regardless of their educational needs.

If you're referencing discipline and/or expulsion, the public schools are at liberty to discipline students, send them to alternative placements for rehabilitation, or expel them. I'm not saying that there aren't behavioral and emotional problems to be dealt with. It's just that the charters are more nimble in handling them -- evidence of another policy failing of the District.

Submitted by tom-104 on March 9, 2012 3:14 pm

Until there is complete transparency in regards to charter schools no one really knows. Not all charter schools are the same. Not all have admissions by a lottery, for example. What is the admissions criteria for each charter school?

Public school teachers report the frequent admission of students transferred from charter schools. How often does this happen and why? If we are to have an informed position about charters we must track this information (speaking about data driven information, as the privatizers love to claim is behind their push to close schools in low income areas).

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 9, 2012 10:37 pm

ARE YOU KIDDING ME? OF COURSE THEY ARE SELECTIVE! They have lotteries and kids on waiting lists to get in? If they weren't "selective", they would be OPEN TO EVERYONE and ACCOMMODATE EVERYONE.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 28, 2012 5:48 pm

Charter schools are only permitted to admit a certain number of students, as outlined in their CHARTER. This is why there are lotteries.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 9, 2012 10:02 pm

The SDP is responsible for the education of all students living within city limits. If those students go to charters, they have to pay per pupil costs, pay for transportation, etc. If they get expelled from the charter, and go to a neighborhood school, the responsibility still lies with the district. If they go to a district alternative/disciplinary school, the cost and responsibility still lie with the SDP.

The charter, on the other hand, washes its hands of the student the moment they expel them.

So to say that charters are "more nimble at handling them" is either woefully naive or purposeful misinformation. The district can move students to more or less restrictive programs. Charters, on the other hand, can simply shunt students out and no longer bear any responsibility whatsoever. To say that this is anything but the exact way the system was designed, to say that this is somehow a fault of the public education system, is fallacious at best.

The SDP can expel students but still has to educate them. It is illegal to just say "no, we won't educate you in any way, have fun on the streets." In the case of SPED students, they cannot be out for more than 10 days. For most students, the limit is 45 days. And during those days, if a parent says they can't/won't homeschool or find other education, the district remains responsible for FAPE.

There are no real expulsions. That is, unless you are a charter school.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 9, 2012 5:00 pm

I am not surprised that the school is so orderly. I received a new student in my class last week. Prior to entering my classroom, he attended Mastery-Smedley Charter School.

Why is he in my public school classroom? Because he is very disorderly, and apparently not such a great fit for Mastery-Smedley. He is a special education student who requires a lot of emotional support. Mastery-Smedley is not up for the task.

Luckily, I am.

Submitted by Angry Parent (not verified) on March 9, 2012 10:20 pm

Cut out the BS and prove it! What are his/her initials? I am sick and tired of folks claiming that Mastery kicks kids out of their schools. If the student really does attend your school, then I am pretty sure it was due to the fact that the child and his/her family moved. By the way, by attending your school, this child probably has exponentially decreasd their chance of going to college.

Submitted by One of the Good Ones (not verified) on March 9, 2012 10:02 pm

We have several students from Mastery Smedley. And yes, they are horribly behaved. My school has made AYP for many years now. Can we say the same about Smedley? Face the fact that your school can and does get rid of the behavior issues.

Submitted by Angry Parent (not verified) on March 10, 2012 11:01 pm

You make a good point! Smedley more than likely did not make AYP last year since it was the first year of a takeover, which from what I hear, is usually dedicated to resetting expectations and transforming the culture of the building (save your energy on commenting about the link between transforming the culture of the building and booting kids). I know the Principal at Smedley pretty well and I can tell you there is no way that he is getting rid of students who have behavior issues.

Also, even though Smedley probably did not make AYP, they did make nice gains from pretty dismal scores from the previous year when the district was running the show.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 11, 2012 1:52 pm

Nonsense, we just got one of their problem students last month and this child has been a headache since Day One. So much for might Mastery being the miracle cure. If you want to believe what the principal tells you that's your choice, but we know better. We have to deal with what Mastery can't hack.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 9, 2012 10:20 pm

No, they do kick kids out of Mastery. Please stop drinking the Kool-Aid and open your eyes.
Why is it okay for charters to be selective as to what students attend their schools and public schools cannot have that same option? Why are my tax dollars paying for this horrendous inequity? Perhaps this is what you should be considering as well.

Submitted by Angry Parent (not verified) on March 10, 2012 10:16 pm

Mastery is actually saving tax payers money (about 2-3K per student) AND getting at least 90% of their students into college. Sounds like a good deal to me.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 10, 2012 11:37 pm

I am a high school teacher and my nephew goes to "Mastery". What a load of crap. He "studies" for the test, and the teachers practice their craft, so that they KNOW the answers for the test, and surpassing "conceptual understanding".
As a teacher of over 20 years, I am not impressed. Teaching to the test does not ensure "mastery".....it is indeed an oxymoron at best!

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 10, 2012 7:27 am

I certainly did not have the opportunity to investigate whether Mastery or Mastery-Smedley kicks students out or prevents troubled students from attending. Scott Gordon assured me that Smedley takes any student who walks through their doors as long as they live in their catchment area just like regular neighborhood schools.

However, Scott did say that they have a short waiting list for Smedley. A legitimate question then is: If the classes are so small (which they should be at all schools), why can't Smedley accommodate those on the waiting list and where do they go to school?

I apologize that we couldn't include in the blog all of the issues I would have liked to discuss, but that made it too long and convoluted. What we posted is only a glimpse of one Mastery school.

I am just happy that my visit may have added to a positive discussion of these issues.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 10, 2012 11:34 am

Fluff piece Migliore. Weak attempt at journalism.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on March 10, 2012 11:57 am

The question really should be why Mastery ( when operating as a neighborhood school) can cap classes at 25 when district run neighborhood schools must be at 30 (K-3) and 33 (4-12) to be considered full. Again, this gives Mastery an advantage we do not have. It really is something that needs to be discussed at length. Level the playing field for all.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 13, 2012 4:02 pm

Krystal - Did it ever cross your mind that Mastery generally has smaller class sizes than the District because they offer more sections of a class? Also, they don't cap classes at 25, it just turns out that some sections are smaller than others, which provides all students at Mastery with an advantage.

Submitted by tom-104 on March 13, 2012 5:22 pm

Until there is complete transparency for charter schools, as there is for public schools, these debates will never be settled. We are operating from a lot of unknowns about all aspects of charters. Until they are required to open their books I am very skeptical about anything charter defenders say because even the defenders only know about the one school which they have experience with.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on March 13, 2012 5:12 pm

(Not sure who Krystal is) but..... That is part of my point. District schools are not allowed to "offer more sections"--that is hire another teacher--until all classes are at maximum capacity. That IS an advantage, one we would like to have. A level playing field before comparisons are made is all we would like.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 10, 2012 6:55 pm

"The teachers were all young, vibrant, and bright-eyed."

Wow, I feel so fuzzy after reading that line. In other words, the teachers are all inexperienced and statistically, won't stay more than five years.

Research consistently correlates learning with experienced teachers. In fact, in several surveys I've seen put out by various think tanks, teachers with 15 years experience (or more) provide optimal teaching and learning experiences.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 10, 2012 6:24 pm

I bet their salaries stay real "young" as well.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 10, 2012 8:37 pm

With over 9 years of teaching experience, (and over the age of 40), I was not selected to work at Mastery. Certified in three content areas as well. I laughed when I read on their website--"If you were not considered for a position before at Mastery, please relate why you feel you weren't selected".....
I'll tell you why...because I WAS TOO OLD! I would not waste my time or energy interviewing with them ever again. Not with an organization that advocates age discrimination. More people need to open their eyes to this as well. As the previous poster indicated, it is all about MONEY. Trust me, if I am defined as being an "older" teacher, one thing does work in my favor, MY KIDS RESPECT ME AS A TEACHER and NOT AS THEIR FRIEND. Mastery knew the minute they saw how "old" I was that they did not want me. I hope to, in the future, see someone slap a HUGE class action lawsuit on them just for that. I wonder what the statistics are for teachers over the age of 30 working there.
By the way, Rich, was Brook professional in person? His comments out here, for someone who holds a position of authority, were abhorrent and extremely unprofessional. I could NOT count on one hand the number of teachers in their mid 30's or 40's at Mastery. THEY DON'T WORK THERE!

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 11, 2012 10:47 am

Yes, Brook was very professional in person. I do not know of his background or what is the whole of his role as a Mastery trustee, but in these comments, many speak from the passion of their hearts which is a good thing. I ended up with the invite to visit as a result of a passionate discussion about Mastery schools and he was defending Mastery and touting their successes. I would defend my school, too.

However, both he and Scott were very apprehensive about me visiting a Mastery school because they did not know what I would write about Mastery. We cut out of the original draft for the article a few paragraphs about the "trust factor" of my visit. It was a guided tour.

One reason why I did the visit and wrote about it was to begin to bridge the "trust gap" and promote the sharing of what actually are the best practices for our schoolchildren. "Trust formation" is, according to the research of effective leadership, the most crucial characteristic of effective leaders.

I decided upon the "snapshot style" of my piece in order to present an "objective view" as much as possible. It is up to the readers and commenters to critically analyze what I saw and wrote, and as usual, our commenters have done an excellent job of that and have pointed out the pressing issues.

I want to thank Erika and Ben for their help and input into the article. They are outstanding young reporters and I learned from them.

As to the issue of more experienced teachers, I believe a healthy school community needs a healthy blend of experience and youth. There is a reason the PFT contract provides a salary increment for "senior career teachers." I would hire you for "our school."

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 11, 2012 12:17 pm

I'm 35 and work at Mastery. I am also a native Philadelphian, worked for the School District for several years, live in Philadelphia and have children who attend SDP schools. In my eyes, we do what is best for our children and our families.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 11, 2012 1:25 pm

Then you must be "one" out of how many? Like I said before, I would love to see the correlation of age groups that are hired at Mastery. I know for a fact that they hire the young and the inexperienced first. In this way, they do not have to worry about paying senior scale salaries. They are only reserved for the stiff shirts that run the organization.
I was appalled to see that mostly young teachers are at Mastery. What is the message that they are trying to send? Only if you are young and able bodied then you are worthy of a position there. I give this b/s scheme 5 five years. People will eventually wake up.

Submitted by Aaron (not verified) on March 10, 2012 8:29 pm

I've a friend who works at Mastery and laughs at the high amounts they pay their administrators. My friend also said that the model won't sustain over a period of time.
I sure hope the kids who currently attend DO benefit while it lasts.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 10, 2012 8:30 pm

Exactly! Why do you think I noticed that? And why do you think I pointed that out?

If you read my comment above, I said, "The issue of the value of experienced teachers in a school community should be on the top burner of our debates."

There is more stuff in there for you to jump on. Read between the lines some more....

Try figuring out what it says on the hall pass in the little girl's hand in the leading picture. If you post the right answer, and point out the issue it raises, I'll send you $10 bucks. There's a clue to that issue elswhere in the article, too.

Submitted by David (not verified) on March 12, 2012 4:23 pm

Not unlike the author, I am a 35+ year veteran of the SDP. I retired a few years ago and I am working in research in public and charter schools. I wanted to find fault at Mastery and simply couldn't. I've been to Mastery Lenfest and Shoemaker and I found, just as the author did, happy productive kids in clean orderly buildings. The staff was a bit younger than SDP schools but that is not what makes the schools different. I thought that they cherry picked the students and threw out the bad ones but that isn't so. They have a 94% retention rate which is higher than the SDP average and they serve the neighborhood population just as any comprehensive school might. As someone who has spent a lifetime working for social justice I have to conclude that Mastery at least is providing what looks like a "free and appropriate public education". So what is the secret? Certainly a smaller model that can be manged and an educational philosophy that everyone understands and adheres to. Could this be replicated on a larger scale? I don't think so but maybe that is the point. We called for decentralizing the system 30 years ago and maybe that is what Mastery has achieved. Pickett Middle School was supposed to be a model of innovation when it opened more than 40 years ago. It was staffed with hand selected staff and was to demonstrate best practices and it failed from the day it opened. Anyone who worked there will tell you it was bedlam. Along comes Mastery in a very short time it is orderly, well run, and productive. Maybe most significantly I found staff members who send their own children to Mastery. Do you find that anywhere except Masterman, Central, and the other selective programs?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 12, 2012 7:58 pm

It would be great if there could be a study to report the age of teachers working at Mastery or any charter schools?? I think that would be very interesting and important information. Also, how do the salaries and benefits compare? What are the benefits of a teacher working at a charter school?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 13, 2012 2:31 pm

The average age of a TEACHER? Probably 18 years old.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 15, 2012 11:17 pm

There is a question I have about the small class sizes, etc... what percentage of Mastery's budget is outside funding? Assuming they do pay teachers 10-15% less than district schools, that doesn't explain how their classes are 20-30% smaller. When you factor in the number of support positions in Mastery schools, the per pupil spending becomes very interesting. Mastery has been tireless in raising outside funds -- and while that is wonderful on one level, it is very hard to sustain.

Let's take Mastery's success at face value and then ask the next question - if their per pupil spending (including philanthropic efforts) is higher than what an SDP school has, then there is a major piece of the puzzle explained. Money matters in education.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 16, 2012 8:17 am

Money matters very much. So does class size matter very much. So does a newly painted, bright and friendly schoolhouse matter.

And for my friend above, the hall pass in the little girl's hand is a pass to their "health screening" which, of course, addresses the fact that meeting health needs matters.

I find it quite telling that while District school nurses and their "occupy 440" friends assemble to protest the cutting of school nurses, Mastery works on the health needs of its students.

And so does a friendly atmosphere matter where students and the teachers smile and create a warm and nurturing atmosphere. It makes everyone, students and staff alike, enjoy their job and therefore do a better job.

Scott told me that Mastery uses a combination of District funds and its own funds to paint and refurbish the school way more quickly than the District could do it by itself. He also said that they do it all for about $1,000.00 less per student.

As to the details of its budget, I do not have that information. The transparency of charter school budgets is an issue that is not going away. Nor are the age of the staff issues going away or the issues of whether they are functioning as public or private schools paid for with public funds.

The question raised by our very first commenter above is the question which keeps ringing in my ears. But the bottom line is that what I saw of Smedley in my too short guided visit of only one hour, was a good school.

Submitted by MBA to M'ed Mom (not verified) on April 13, 2012 8:25 pm

I have reservations about students being 'orderly' defining a good school, but seeing students engaged and happy, and teachers and staff happy and all friendly, I have found in my experience, can mean a good school. I read an article yesterday about the importance of structure in urban schools and how that helps create an environment condusive to learning.

Order to me means behavior which can be very subjective and biased based on perceptions. Orderly does not mean structured learning environment to me.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 17, 2012 7:34 pm

I work at a first year Mastery School. I can assure you that we have all of the same students as the SDP had last year. We have all of the same issues. However, the teachers are more equipped to deal with them. Each teacher is trained to deal with students in the same manner. There is consistency among the expectations of each and every adult in the building, down to the custodial and nursing staff. The students are slowly but surely learning to conform to the new rules and I am proud to say there is now order and a positive environment in my school. It is NOT an easy job, and students are NOT shipped out of here when they misbehave.

Having worked in two other public schools, I have never worked so hard at my job. There are no "off" days. Each day is like starting day one of the school year. Each day is treated as another day to close the achievement gap. My lessons are far more thorough due to teacher coaching and constant feedback from my administrators who actually know what they are doing and are experts in instruction.

I came to Mastery looking for guidance in order to become the best teacher I can be. In both of my other schools, I knew more than my principals. I wanted someone to help guide me. I also wanted to be rewarded for the hard work I put in everyday. I was tired of watching those "experienced" teachers sit back and read the newspaper and take off of work every other day once it warmed up outside. Instead, I was making barely enough money to pay my rent. Now, I work at Mastery and I am paid based on my performance in the classroom, through may observations and tracking of student data, not just test scores. This, in my opinion, makes more sense and is fair.

While the Mastery model is not perfect, Mastery teachers are open to continuous improvement. Feedback is a regular thing at Mastery, and it is something many teachers, due to OUR egos, cannot handle. However, it is expected and embraced at Mastery, and because of that I think the model will continue to get stronger.

As far as hiring purposes, I do feel Mastery looks not for a particular age but rather a particular personality type. I do not have a social life because every fiber of my being is devoted to this job. That is the difference between where I taught before and here. I knew going into this year as a turnaround school that I would be working like a dog, and it was communicated to me in so many words in the hiring process. I expressed that I knew that and was willing to put in that time and effort. That is what is necessary to undo some of the behaviors and gaps in achievement that are present in our schools right now. That is also the type of person Mastery hires.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 17, 2012 8:00 pm

that is wonderful that you were willing to give up your social life to teach. I am a devoted, caring teacher. I have two children of my own and just because I have a commitment to my own children doesn't make me a bad teacher. I give 100% when I am on the job...but my job is not my end all be all. In order to not burn out, we need balance in our lives.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 17, 2012 9:53 pm

Please don't insult the "experienced" teachers. They are the ones that are more and more becoming victims of "age discrimination". Let's face it, they don't want to pay the salary that is commensurate with experience. Soon enough, they will continue to only hire the young and "under 30" crowd.....while someone with enough sense will file a class action suit. I am waiting for it to happen.

Submitted by Mark (not verified) on April 17, 2012 9:28 pm

So, in other words, Mastery hires masochists. No social life? That's unhealthy and a poor model for children who need to learn how to balance a full life. Work is only part of life, not the whole thing.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 17, 2012 8:29 pm

I have no doubt that you give 100% and I commend you for it. However, you also probably know there are some teachers that do not and they still remain on the job. Under the Mastery model, it is impossible to not give 100% and succeed as a professional. There is just far too much observation and critique of teachers to allow any to fly under the radar and get away with it.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 17, 2012 8:24 pm

I fully believe in being held accountable, but some of these Charter Schools abuse their staff. They expect them to drop everything and stay until 5:00 on a Friday. If you can't, because you have a family weekend getaway planned, you are deemed a bad teacher. That's sad. I wonder what happens when staff have to leave for a family emergency or have to take a day off to stay home with a sick child. People have lives and family obligations.

Submitted by mirela (not verified) on June 6, 2014 8:47 am
I'm glad he found so many good things there. usually we only see the problems everywhere we go and we are very harsh with our critics. It's important to notice the good side of things too. jocuri 3D
Submitted by gigel (not verified) on June 9, 2014 5:53 am
You make this school sound like the best place ever. If it's even half as good as you describe it, then teachers there are doing a great job. noutati seo

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