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'Persistently dangerous' schools down in District; Mastery touts Gratz progress

By Dale Mezzacappa on Sep 5, 2012 02:39 PM

Briana  Jackson said her life changed when Mastery Charter took over Gratz High School a year ago.

The self-described former troublemaker, now a senior, said that the transformation isn't yet complete; she still gets detentions now and then. But the person who was regularly suspended has turned into a serious student, athlete and student-government member with her sights set on attending Howard University and becoming a nurse.

Jackson is emblematic of a changed school that Mastery officials showed off Wednesday, one that has come off the state's persistently dangerous list in its first year as a Renaissance turnaround school under the charter organization. 

"It's not perfect yet, but it's not chaotic," said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon. What it is now, he said, is a community of parents, students, and staff and a popular neighborhod school with a growing enrollment and less student turnover.

As Mastery was touting its accomplishments, the School District announced that just six District schools are on the state's persistently dangerous list for 2012-13. Last year's list of 12 Philadelphia schools included Gratz and Audenried High School, both of which were converted to charters a year ago.

In the District, six city high schools -- Edison, Fels, Northeast, Sayre, Shaw and South Philadelphia -- came off the list. Four remained -- Frankford, Kensington Business, Lincoln, and Strawberry Mansion. Two new schools joined the list, Douglas High School and Beeber Middle School.

The designation is "formula-driven," said District spokesman Fernando Gallard. Schools get on the list for violent crimes that lead to arrest, and the threshold is pretty low - 5 incidents for schools with 250 or fewer students; incidents amounting to 2 percent of enrollment for schools between 251 and 1,000 students; and 20 incidents for schools with more than 1,000 students.

The District also said that, overall, the violent crime index, which includes assaults, fires, robberies, abductions, drugs and alcohol, morals and weapons offenses, is down by 4 percent. Incidents went down in all areas except morals and drug offenses.

This is the second year in a row that the number of dangerous schools has declined.

"I think there is a focus here on trying to get to the smaller incidents so they don't grow into something bigger,"  Gallard said.

The School Reform Commission recently voted to change the District's discipline policy to focus more on prevention.

Also coming off the list, Gallard said, was Audenried High School -- a District school converted to a charter under Universal Companies and the scene of notorious incidents chronicled in the Inquirer's award-winning Assault on Learning series.

Mastery's Gordon also touted improvement in test scores at Gratz and at their   turnaround elementary schools based on 2012 PSSA results.

In two years, proficiency rates at three elementary schools, Mann, Smedley, and Harrity, have gone up an average of 27 percentage points in math and 17 points in reading, while enrollment has gone up and the rate of student withdrawal has gone down.

Mastery-Gratz's 11th-grade PSSA proficiency rates, which started very low, also went up, to around 20 percent in both subjects, according to the data.

Parents from several schools came to the Wednesday event, held in a Gratz classroom, to praise Mastery.

George Tilghman, the chair of the School Advisory Council at Mastery-Harrity in West Philadelphia, said that when his daughter was in 4th grade, pre-Mastery, he feared for her safety.

"Now the school has a nice vibe to it and you can see progress in learning," he said.

Gratz, unlike Mastery's other converted District schools, still has metal detectors. It is the first turnaround high school that Mastery has taken on. Its other high schools, Thomas, Pickett, and Shoemaker, started out as middle schools and were gradually converted to 6th-12th grade schools, one grade at a time.

The metal detectors are still there, said Mastery's Courtney Collins-Shapiro, because parents weren't quite ready to let them go.

"As we build trust, our goal is to get rid of the detectors," she said.

For Briana Jackson, her time at Gratz didn't start out well. She got kicked out of orientation. She kept getting demerits. "It was a rough beginning," she said.

But she said the different between Gratz before Mastery and after is having all the adults on the same page in their high expectations, a strict but fair discipline policy, and clear-cut consequences for violations.

"The first thing we did was we told them we believe they are better than what the statistics show," said principal LaQuanda Jackson, no relation to Briana.

But that meant the opposite of cutting students any slack. For instance, students are no longer sent home if they show up out of uniform, but ushered to a room with spare shirts, pants and shoes. And out-of-uniform means having white stripes or laces in black shoes. The room also contains black tape to cover them up.

"It's about sweating the small stuff," said Collins-Shapiro.

Briana said she finally shaped up when principal Jackson threatened to send her to an in-house disciplinary program.

"That was not for me," she said. "And here I saw that everybody believed in me. Now I stay here until 8 o'clock at night."

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Comments (49)

Submitted by Concerned Phila. (not verified) on September 5, 2012 6:15 pm

Will there be a profile of EVERY school that is off the list? I'm sure there are students to interview at SDP schools that will also sings it praises.

Will the new SDP student conduct policy include allow all "the adults (to be) on the same page in their high expectations, a strict but fair discipline policy, and clearcut consequences for violation?"

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 8, 2012 8:02 am

(1) It is really great that Briana is finally making progress. It is a tribute to her, her family and her teachers. But Concerned, you are correct. There are miracles performed by students and teachers in every school in Philadelphia and there are equally great things happening in many many other schools. They need to recognized as well.

Many of those miracles with children are happening in schools who teach students who cannot test well.

Submitted by Rob (not verified) on September 5, 2012 7:48 pm

Can someone who works at Gratz before and after the takeover comment on this?

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on September 5, 2012 7:33 pm

Probably not fairly- as they are an at will employee with no union protection.
I would not trust an anonymous reply.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 5, 2012 7:32 pm

Why would ANY rational person believe ANYTHING Gordon has to say and, of course, employees are gone if they question anything at one of Gordon't fiefdoms. What Nonsense !! This is the USA, not Red China circa 1970. The dwarf king is beyond creepy.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 9:52 am

22 security guards, support staff that follows through with responsibilities, and a label called "pre-fight" helps to not have the classification of an altercation. That said, I do believe it since the shift to follow-through with incidents was in place. Keep in mind, the district could achieve the same goals with ease if they added 22 security guards per dangerous school and held students accountable for their actions - like Mastery does.

You can't really hate when the difference is based on support staff - its the district that doesn't support us.

That said... you are not comparing apples to apples. We just don't get support in the SDP.


Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on September 6, 2012 11:31 pm

Seriously, 22 security guards? Is that true? I know Gratz is a big school, but that many security guards seems like overkill.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 11:32 pm

Agree! According to their web site, there are 1151 students. That means there is a security guard for about every 50 students. Incredible! There also is a lot of other staff. For example, according to the web site, there are 9 administrators JUST FOR 9th GRADE!

How does Mastery get enough funding to have so many adults in their buildings while SDP schools are lucky to have 5 - 6 school police in a school with over 1200 students?

According to Gordon in the PR video, Mastery spends the same as SDP schools? How? Love to see the budget. He also claims Mastery is different because the schools "work?" Again, how? What makes a school "work?"

Then there is the Gratz "By any means necessary" contract -

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 7, 2012 10:40 pm

There are currently 5 security guards working at Gratz.

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on September 5, 2012 8:12 pm

Will the safety and climate improvements at Gratz yield similiar suspension numbers to the other Mastery schools with high school grades? Unless there were some errors in the fall guide, Mastery has some suspensions numbers that would be deemed unacceptable. There were no suspension rates listed at Audenried or Gratz in the guide because they were "new schools", is the method for coming off the list raw numbers, or do these schools get a restart on climate data as well as academic data?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 5, 2012 8:41 pm

Every other school (Besides Gamble U)mentioned is a NOT a charter, yet Mastery gets singled out for praise.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 5, 2012 8:32 pm

drop the ball on this one Notebook writers. Where is the "hype" and "play up" of the neighborhood High Schools (NON-Charters) that worked their way off the list???????

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 5, 2012 9:59 pm

I agree with previous commenters. This is a propaganda piece for charters. It touts Mastery as a great success, yet says nothing about the public schools taken off of the "persistently dangerous" list.

Also, there is nothing about Mastery having strict control who it accepts and removes from its schools with behavior being a major factor. Public schools that were taken off of the "persistently dangerous" list must take all students by law. Shouldn't they be praised for the improvement even though they cannot determine their student population like the charters can?

Submitted by Another Philadelphian (not verified) on September 5, 2012 9:28 pm

"Briana said she finally shaped up when principal Jackson threatened to send her to an in-house disciplinary program."

What is the "in-house disciplinary program?" This is not "in house suspension." It is a program so I assume this is their "success academy. How many are enrolled? Where is it located? What is the curriculum? This is as much a part of the story as "Mastery's success."

Submitted by Dale Mezzacappa on September 6, 2012 11:29 am

It is an in-house program run by Camelot. The prinicpal said 50 students were enrolled.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 1:58 pm

Does that mean the students in the program are not longer Gratz students? (e.g. count for PSSA/Keystone, attendance, graduation rate, etc.)

Submitted by Hope Moffett (not verified) on September 5, 2012 10:01 pm

The hypocrisy of it all still bothers me. An improvement to 20% deserves praise, but Audenried's growth to 27-29% in reading and math demanded a takeover. In fact, David Weiner (remember him?) argued that it was a moral imperative that the SRC hand over the school to the Chairman's life-long friend because the improvements were just not great enough. When Scott Gordan, the SRC, or the District recognizes the accomplishments of Audenried students, then they can feel free to self-congratulate.

Submitted by Dale Mezzacappa on September 6, 2012 12:16 pm

Hope makes good points about the double standard regarding what constitutes acceptable school improvement in the turnaround environment. 

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 1:43 pm

Your responding to this is appreciated. This notebook reader is highly suspicious of the PR machine behind charters, particularly Mastery.

Submitted by Geoffrey (not verified) on September 5, 2012 10:05 pm

This is poor jounalism.

Submitted by Dale Mezzacappa on September 6, 2012 7:00 am

Mastery had scheduled its press conference; the persistently dangerous results came out the same day. We would like to look at what is happening in other schools that came off the list and would welcome input from teachers and students at those schools regarding changed conditions. In terms of doing that yesterday, school isn't open yet, folks.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 8:51 am

Mastery had a press conference precisely to get the good press. You should have know better than to give to give one school / one charter company so much "air time." This is PR not journalism.

Submitted by Geoffrey (not verified) on September 6, 2012 11:37 am

Rich Migliore has been very public about Gordon's refusal to allow him to visit Gratz. Did you ask him about that? And what is the relevance of quoting a parent whose child doesn't even go the school? I would also question the news value of what Gordon says about his own school.

Submitted by Dale Mezzacappa on September 6, 2012 11:03 am

Rich, do you want to weigh in? The news value in part was Mastery's release of its PSSA scores in its turnaround schools; the event wasn't only about Gratz, hence the other parents.

Thanks, all, for the views on how this was handled.  

Anyone interested can attend a panel discussion this evening at 6 p.m. at Tyler School of Art at Temple, I am moderating and Gordon will be there.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 12:01 pm

To all concerned about the future of our public schools: Please attend the conference at Tyler this evening at 6pm.
We public school advocates need to be there to witness what is happening.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 7, 2012 6:00 pm

Hi Dale. I apologize but I just read your comment now. Yes, I will weigh in the on the issues everyone raises here, but I do wish to think about my response some. But as a preliminary response from someone who has dealt with test scores for 37 years now as a reading specialist and former coordinator of a high school reading program, it is not difficult to raise test scores as claimed by Mastery by test preparation alone. It does not necessarily mean achievement went up or that students can write well.

As to getting off the most dangerous schools list, I think that if they did excluded disruptive students, that is a good idea and does improve climate in the rest of the school. It is easy though to get off the most dangerous schools list -- just do not report violence to the police or have anyone arrested. Without transparency we can never be sure of the truth.

I still challenge Scott to allow me to visit Mastery Gratz, talk to teachers and students, and write an unbiased report for the Notebook.

I do not believe anyone has accused me of being unbiased in my report about Mastery Smedley. Whenever I do something, i put my professional integrity and credibility on the line. That is my highest personal value.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 7, 2012 10:22 pm

Sorry, I meant no one had accused me of being biased in what I wrote about Smedley. I wrote about exactly what I saw -- a good school with small class sizes and all the resources students and teachers need. And agood bit of order in what they did.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 8, 2012 8:29 am

Good morning Dale: After thinking about this article, yes I have a whole lot to say about the issues it raises -- a whole lot to say. Instead of saying it all in one long comment though, I will add snippets here and there in reply to some of the comments. I will number them (1), (2), (3)....

I am going to also, at some point during this year, write a scholarly article addressing these issues.

But please know I am very saddened and upset at what our district has become. The education of our children is not a competition. It is a community effort. It is not a game to be played. It is not about taking over schools. It is about us working together as a community, as a team, as concerned and caring parents, teachers and citizens.

Instead of competing with each other and creating self serving hype, we should be sharing with each other -- for the good of our children and our common good.

I am sure people are tired of hearing me say about back in the day, but it was once so great to be a teacher and come to work every day. All we ever did was passionately argue about how to help children, teach them better and help each other. I believe that there are enough great young people today in education who can and will lead us toward becoming again -- a collaborative community which selflessly serves the children, their school communities and cares about each other.

Submitted by Sir Frederick Mercury (not verified) on September 5, 2012 11:56 pm

The Top 10 Things Scott Gordon Also Said About Gratz

10) Despite results on the court, Gratz is still the best basketball team in the state,

9) Marcus Foster was my kindergarten teacher.

8) Parents want weapon detectors or we wouldn't have them.

7) Next year the school will be called Mastery at Gratz Friends

6) Hey, Rich: Come over now that the Notebook has our back.

5) We are making tremendous gains in our test scores! 20% of our kids can read!

4) There's plenty of parking.

3) Plenty of parents that haven't been in North Philly for years dropped by to praise us.

2) Please ignore parents holding on to the metal detectors. We don't want them but they insist on more police control.

1) If you see my kids here they are not my kids.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 12:52 am

Scott, the jealousy will never stop, keep up the good work.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 6:58 am

not about jealousy, it's about giving ALL schools credit, not just the Charter school. Edison, Fels, etc. are neighborhood schools which must take ALL students, cannot have kids and parents sign "behavior contracts," cannot not just transfer kids out if their behavior or attendance fall below standard or send Special Ed kids back to their neighborhood schools once the federal monies arrive (which the Charter keeps, by the way). The neighborhood schools coming off the list is the BIGGER story here and IF the writer wanted to single any of the schools out, instead of giving all credit, it should have been one of the neighborhood.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 8:14 am

Scott Gordon is arrogant - it isn't him. He has the William Penn Foundation / Nowak, the SRC, the Governor, ETC. in his back pocket. The playing field isn't level - Scott Gordon has made sure of it.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 10:21 am

Mastery just has a way better PR machine than the PSD. Our administrators do not talk up any teacher achievement unless they can spin it in a way to make themselves look good.

Mastery increased PSSA scores by 20%. When I was at Gratz the Scores were around a 9 and 13 which I think was lowest in the city. So a 20% improvement still means they are now below 90% of the Public schools. This fact is ludicrously omitted from the article. My current school's scores are at least 40% higher and our teachers were told we screwed up.

Yet Gratz is written up as a great success.But Mastery knows how to spin its success whereas the PSD cn only disparage its teachers. Mastery knows how to manage the press and generate good buzz.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 10:00 am

Click on the link in this very article which links to Mastery's scores. You will find numbers for Mann, Smedly and another school. No Gratz. You will find attendance numbers for Gratz which I guess look good.

Obviously all of the administrators at Mastery have read the immortal 1954 book, "How to Lie With Statistics". The Numbers low but it is improved 20% so you talk up the 20% and forget about the low raw number. Make nice charts for the press to pick on.

Good PR in Action. Got to hand it to them they run rings around the SRC.

Submitted by Dale Mezzacappa on September 6, 2012 2:08 pm

The story said that scores improved so that now 20 percent of the students are proficient. That number speaks for itself.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 9, 2012 9:18 am

(2) The PSSA scores for many reasons have very little credibility. They lack very basic indicia of validity and reliability. As Diane Ravitz eloquently explains in her book, many charter operators easily "game the system" when it comes to test scores.

We a have a cheating scandal in Philadelphia. Even without undue erasures, we all know teaching the test, teaching to the test, overcoaching during the test and excluding low performing students from schools and the pool of test takers, all corrupt the credibility of any school's scores and invalidates those scores.

What we need most is a credible student and school assessment process. No school's PSSA scores are trustworthy.

Mastery's test scores do not speak for itself. I assure you Mastery are experts at manipulating data and pool of test takers. They have been accused by many of excluding low performing students from their schools. Their data is not trustworthy.

It is all so intellectually dishonest -- and so sad.

Submitted by Ken Derstine on September 6, 2012 4:38 pm

I don't think the discipline statistics can be trusted from either charter or public schools. They can be too easily manipulated to show a desired result.

As long as we live in a punitive educational system where people are blamed for things they have no control over and at the same time are not given the resources and support needed to give a good education to children from low income families, we will continue to see cheating scandals and unreliable statistics.

If schools were told that if they had serious discipline problems they would receive more counselors and support from social services, would they have any trouble with recording incidents accurately?

If tests are seen as only one diagnosis of a student's or school's problems which must be fixed with such things as smaller classes and more resources, and not a punitive practice of blaming a "bad teacher" for test results of which the teacher is only one factor, we would be able to make progress in fixing our educational system.

Privatization is a scam to take attention of parents and educators off of the politicians who are underfunding education in low income areas and opening up schools to yet another source of profit for the already rich.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 8:47 pm

Bingo--I've said the same thing over and over. Beeber is a good school. The Principal tells the truth and that's why Beeber is on the list. I've been in 8 schools in 10 years and EVERY school except Beeber lies and hides the truth. Beeber should be commended not ridiculed.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 9:21 pm

8 schools in 10 years?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 9:35 pm

Actually 7, I miscounted. LS teacher, what can I say??

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 7, 2012 6:57 pm

I totally agree. The Beeber staff are told to report everything that warrants a report and the Principal writes it all up. Beeber is a very good and safe school and is not dangerous in the traditional sense. They just simply report the truth which, of course, is seldom the case in our schools.

Submitted by Christina Puntel (not verified) on September 6, 2012 8:44 pm

Sweating the small stuff? White laces in black shoes? I've re-read this article a few times and I can't shake this image from my head. I'm troubled on a few different levels, reminds me of Haberman's pedagogy of poverty, and just generally makes me wish I could iterate from the classroom what teachers know about reform. I'm sure there are parents and students and teachers from Gratz who wish they could speak to the kind of teaching and learning that went on there even in the face of a barrage of leadership changes. I have never worked in a school that was being taken over, empowermentized, or turned into a charter, but from what I've heard that looming fantasma is enough to topple even the tightest learning community. There are no ifs, and history doesn't seem to matter much nowadays. I hope I'm not coming off as antiMastery when I'm just proCreativity. I might be shutting my door and teaching tomorrow, but I'm thinking about all of us, what we know can happen in public schools in Philadelphia, and what we create everyday together.

Submitted by Another Philadelphian (not verified) on September 6, 2012 10:31 pm

While I don't understand the shoe laces thing, I think there is a place for addressing the "small stuff." At many schools, the "small stuff" is getting to class on time, going to advisory versus hanging in the halls, putting the cell phone away in class, etc. While the rules are debatable, if the "small stuff" is ignored, the bigger stuff gets bigger.

That said, I'd like to see Mastery's rules. Will anyone post a list? What is "small stuff" versus necessary to create a learning environment. I have worked in "empowerment" schools / neighborhood high schools (and some middle schools) where there is a lot of confusion and craziness. I also know schools like Central and Masterman have far fewer rules (including no uniforms) and have plenty of students who "hang." Is this because we assume "neighborhood" schools, versus site select/magnet schools, need structure and rules but the other schools do not? Most people will push the limits on rules (e.g. How many people "stop" at "stop" signs in Philadelphia? How many people let their dogs run in parks and poop anywhere while standing under signs that read "$300 fine...?") The SRC created a new code of student conduct. Based on my reading of the document, we are to change how (some) schools addressed the "small stuff" (e.g. cussing out an adult, cutting class, etc.). I'm all for a more "restorative" approach but that doesn't mean the "small stuff" (excluding the shoe strings - that is bizarre) isn't important.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 7, 2012 12:36 am

every school should get that many security cannot praise a school that is getting more than kids a few blocks away. Why can't we all have that?

Submitted by EILEEN DIFRANCO (not verified) on September 7, 2012 2:14 pm

I'm still waiting for someone to report on the improved climate at our school, Roxborough High. Under our new principal, our violent incidents went from 75 to less than 10. And we didn't need an army of school police, just the vision of a good leader. How is it that the charter school receive all the adulation and the rest of us are just left in the dust? Won't hold my breath.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 7, 2012 4:26 pm

...and Mastery has 22 security guards while neighborhood high schools are lucky to have 3 - 4. Mastery also has 7 ninth grade administrator at Gratz. I don't know if there are 7 per grade, but that would be 28 administrators. Even Promise Academies with DOL grants, which have far too many administrators, don't have that level of adult staff.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 7, 2012 4:41 pm

Politics, Eileen, Politics !!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 7, 2012 5:10 pm

Unfortunately our school got some of the displaced reject staff from Gratz who have now taken over our school and expedited its descent into chaos. Dr. Hite will have his work cut out for him.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 7, 2012 5:54 pm

Chaos is created by the management of the school. That is an absurd statement and makes no sense at all. What school are you talking about?

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