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Mastery drops out; Steel to stay in District

By Bill Hangley Jr. on May 8, 2014 04:40 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

After a spirited campaign and a decisive parent vote, Mastery Charter Schools says it is withdrawing from contention to run the Edward T. Steel School in Nicetown, leaving it in the hands of its District staff.

“The parents said they don’t want to partner with us, and we respect that,” said Mastery spokesperson Sheila Ballen.

Mastery officials made the announcement in a statement this morning, shortly after meeting with Steel’s principal. District officials soon followed with a statement of their own, saying they will recommend that the school remain under District control, pending a vote by the School Reform Commission later this month.

Officials say their goal will be to “build on the academic plan designed by the school community and Principal Mary Bonner,” according to a District statement.

Superintendent William Hite praised parents for being involved in the process and cited the results of the parent vote – the first of its kind for the District – as a major factor. Parents voted 121-55 to reject Mastery and retain District control of the school.

“Our goal was to provide a parent voice into the Renaissance process and we have succeeded,” said Hite in the statement.

The news was greeted with relief and happiness by Steel supporters, including Kendra Brooks, president of the School Advisory Council.

“Today’s the best day I’ve had in 30 days,” said Brooks. Hite has personally assured her that the District will help Steel develop the partnerships and funding needed to support Bonner’s plans, she said.

“He didn’t put a dollar figure on it, but he did say, ‘with financial support,’” Brooks said.

Nikki Bagby, another Steel parent and frequent volunteer at the school, says she was “ecstatic.”

“The process spoke for itself,” she said. “We weren’t going to lay down and let anybody tell us what their agenda is. … We are 'Steel strong.'”

For those hoping for a Mastery takeover, it was a tougher day.

“I wish them the best of luck. But my son will not be going in the fall,” said Jenia Jolley, who has two children at Mastery’s Pickett campus, and a son who will start school next year.

A big choice for parents

Mastery has shown significant academic gains at all of its “turnaround” schools. Jolley and other Mastery supporters were hoping for similar results at Steel, whose test scores have been sliding in recent years.

The Steel parents who voted against the charter provider “are not seeing the big picture,” Jolley said. She thinks the District’s ongoing budget cuts make it unlikely that Steel will have much chance to improve.

“They’re not going to put any money into a failing school,” she said. “It’s a ticking time bomb.”

Mastery, the city’s largest and highest-rated school turnaround specialist, was “matched” with Steel by District officials as part of the 2014 Renaissance process. Parents at the school, a K-8 with just under 600 students, were given about a month to decide whether to approve Mastery as Steel’s new operator or remain with the District.

After a short campaign featuring passionate arguments from both sides, about 22 percent of eligible parents voted last Thursday, resulting in the 121-55 vote in favor of Steel’s staff.

A second vote by the School Advisory Council went 9-8 in Mastery’s favor, but some parents involved have formally challenged those results, alleging that District officials manipulated the process to favor the charter provider.

Officials have been investigating those grievances. It is not clear whether that investigation will continue.

January Washington, a teacher at Steel, was pleased to learn that her job is safe, but shared some of Jolley’s concerns.

“The confetti’s flying now, but we’ll see how it looks when it all lands,” Washington said.

She worries that the cash-strapped school could continue to struggle, and eventually end up in the charter conversation once again.

Brooks said Hite assured her that Steel would remain with the District and wouldn't be back in the Renaissance process anytime soon.

"We will remain a public school,” she said.

But Washington said the key question now is whether the District can truly support Steel’s efforts to improve itself. 

There is no question that Mastery could have offered a significant boost to Steel’s staff levels, along with at least a million dollars in privately raised grants. As a special-education liaison at the 600-student school, Washington said Mastery would have replaced her with four full-time staffers, including a dean of special education.

Overall, Mastery was planning to bring in about 56 full-time staff, including 42 full-time teachers and eight full-time administrators. In comparison, Steel has about 35 full-time teachers and four full-time administrators, along with a handful of part-time aides.

It will be virtually impossible for the District to match that infusion of resources, Washington said, despite Hite’s promises.

“I would like to see what these supports [promised by Hite] look like,” Washington said. “It’s not really over. You won the battle, but not the war.”

A rushed process, but an undisputed result

This year’s Renaissance process was criticized by many for being rushed and confusing for parents and providers alike.

Hite and SRC Chair Bill Green have promised to revisit the process and improve it next year, with clearer timelines and criteria for schools’ selection.

Mayor Nutter’s top education aide, Lori Shorr, called this year’s process “less than optimal,” but said the outcome at Steel appears to be a genuine reflection of the community’s will.

“They got an honest result from the process they set up,” she said. “I’m quite sure that next year, the process will be better.”

Helen Gym, of Parents United for Public Education, agreed that the Steel community’s strong vote in the District’s favor shouldn’t be seen as merely a result of anger over the process. It reflects a genuine desire on their part to keep Steel a traditional public school, she said.

“This was not a vote just about process,” said Gym, who has been working informally with Steel's SAC for over a year, advising on safety, school closings, and more recently on the Renaissance vote.

Brooks praised Mastery for sticking to its promise to respect the community’s desires.

“From the beginning, they said they didn’t want to go where they were not wanted, and I respect them for holding to that,” she said.

She added that in her opinion, the SAC vote looked questionable enough that it made sense for the charter to back away.

“With all the grievances and the questions, I’m not surprised,” Brooks said. “They want to maintain their organization’s integrity.”

Brooks said that she’s anxious to get to work and that she’d welcome the participation of the nine SAC members who voted for Mastery.

“I can’t say if they’re going to stay,” she said. “If their children stay in Steel, they really should, so they can be a part of the transformation process.”

But Washington noted that even with the victory for Steel’s staff, some damage has already been done by what she called a “destabilizing” Renaissance process. Many teachers had already started looking for new jobs, she said – herself included.

“I went to a school yesterday, and I thought, 'Wow, I like this place,'” she said. “I was considering [job offers] up until this morning. ... I know at least 10 staff members that have gone [on interviews], and I know a few that have accepted positions.”

Mastery, for its part, said it has offered to continue working with the school, should the principal find that helpful. A call to Bonner for comment was not immediately returned.

The charter provider also noted that the entire process created “conflict” that is “antithetical to our values as an organization.” Mastery officials have said from the start that Steel parents were given a very short time to make a very difficult choice.

They said in this morning’s statement that despite the SAC vote in their favor, in light of the popular vote’s results, stepping out of the process is “the right thing to do.”

“We fervently want all of the community’s children to receive the highest quality education,” Mastery officials wrote. “In that spirit, we truly wish Ms. Bonner and her team the best in implementing their plans to accelerate student achievement.”

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Comments (33)

Submitted by JMH (not verified) on May 8, 2014 5:44 pm

I have to commend the district for allowing the parents to speak.....I wish this would have happened years ago when I was at Thomas Middle School. It was a gem of a school with great teachers and parents and had they been given a choice, they never would allowed Mastery in the door. Schools have literally been given away to these charter school operators with no thought of involving parents or the community. When you truly give people a voice, they will speak the truth. It is too much with the charter schools....way too many. The tide needs to turn back. Investments need to be made in real public education! This means we take them all....every kid who walks through the door and we do everything in our power to educate. Good for Steel Elementary School ..its students, parents and the community!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 8, 2014 10:39 pm

And look at Thomas now, one of the top 2000 schools in the country and still a gem of a school.

Submitted by Phil (not verified) on May 8, 2014 11:42 pm

I thought Thomas' scores more than doubled under Mastery...that's interesting.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 13, 2014 10:12 pm

Speaking from a teacher at Mastery Charter Thomas Campus, I can assure you that Thomas is not a good school. The education is pretty abysmal, my heart breaks. Kristy Fruit is in a word a "bitch", as well as Nicole Javier. Mastery Charter is an oppressive organization that fails to recognize that they are not wanted by the community. What other viable options do they have?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 8, 2014 6:05 pm

Congratulations to the parents of Steel! Well done.

Submitted by Me (not verified) on May 8, 2014 9:47 pm

Why was "Jolley" even questioned about Steel when she has no children there?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 8, 2014 9:55 pm

I'm so proud of us!!!!!! Keep fighting to save our schools!!!!

Submitted by Vivian Rodriguez (not verified) on May 8, 2014 10:10 pm

I am so glad that Mastery withdrew because the majority of parents on general election let them know that their "help" was not welcomed. The majority of parents are not "ignorant" like Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez described the general vote. The funny thing that the SDP and the SRC will be trying to do things better next year. What about doing it right now? This is not over. Luis Munoz Maris is still a victim of this year fraudulent process. Our vote day was change without consulting our parents. Please don't forget us! You would imagine that it will easy to prove to the SDP Charter School Office that their selection of Aspira as a charter operator was a big mistake. We should mention 3 things: mismanagement of funds, poor treatment of teachers and low-achieving schools (Stetson).

Submitted by isonprize (not verified) on May 8, 2014 11:56 pm

But where do folks think the money is coming from for all of the resources that Mastery proposed? Other public schools. They "swap the devil for the witch." It is an unsustainable financial model.

Teachers need prep time. Teachers need adequate training to stay up on the latest technology. Teachers need to learn how to incorporate all types of learners in their classrooms. What will Mastery do when the teachers band together to form a union? You know it's going to happen. What will Mastery do then?

Submitted by Erica (not verified) on May 8, 2014 11:37 pm

I think you're failing to realize that Mastery's teacher turnover rate has steadily dropped year after year. Mastery's teachers accumulate more professional development hours than any other teachers in the state, and with their most recent shifts, their teachers have been receiving more autonomy in the classroom.

Honestly, having observed their several times, I would say their doing a damn good job with creating an environment where teachers want to stay and grow. I would apply in a heartbeat if they had a school dedicated to the sciences. Instead of waiting for the demise of a network that has helped our own failing schools, how about we focus on enhancing our own union. Hell, we're still teaching without a contract...

Submitted by Me (not verified) on May 9, 2014 9:35 am

You are free to go, if that is your attitude I don't want you teaching my child. Sounds like you would do well in a testing factory, which is all Mastery is.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on May 9, 2014 11:28 am

I take it you've visited a Mastery school, as well as sat in a traditional SDP neighborhood or even magnet school classroom for comparison? How about a Test Prep class in the traditional SDP schools?

Otherwise your reply is a judgmental generalization, used for political ends, not for helping children.

If you are teaching English language learners or children who have cultural barriers (e.g. poverty), then rote learning is what is needed. I wouldn't put that basic technique down. You've got to have a solid foundation before being able to use English language skills to express abstract reasoning effectively. It is tested not only on standardized tests, but in many other pragmatic life situations, such as being able to understand contracts, and communicate effectively in a workplace.

I have seen rote learning/repetition used effectively in my neighborhood school classroom. Proficient was above 80% on PSSAs, no cheating or screening of kids involved. If Mastery is using this effectively also, then good for them.

Submitted by Me (not verified) on May 9, 2014 7:51 pm

No, actually I am a parent whose child attends a traditional neighborhood public school and would allow that same child to drop out and become illiterate before I would allow him to attend any Charter School. I have visited several charter schools including a Mastery School and I know what I saw. Testing factories.

I see kids from Charter Schools coming back to the neighborhood school because the Charter School doesn't want to deal with "their issues", by issues I mean those pesky little things like 504's and IEP's, GIEP's.....

So when Charter schools have to abide by the same rules as public schools I would consider changing my position, but until then it is an un-level playing field and an absolute disgrace.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on May 10, 2014 1:22 am

I am a parent whose children were in a neighborhood school too. I spent a good deal of volunteer time starting and co-running a Chess club, helping with the after school "Power Hour", and working to bring Arts and other community partnerships to it, for the sake of making it a better school. I wanted to do this, not because I was angry about an "un-level playing field" with charters, but because I believed a school should extend to the community a child lives in, and that a community should take pride in their neighborhood schools. (I have since had to give up this idealism, but I learned a lot in trying to make it a reality.)

As part of my effort, I sat in on several classes. What I observed made me realize that what had worked for me in school did not work for children who came to school with unmet needs, and unable to focus on academic work. The teachers that were the most effective provided a highly structured class, combined with an aggressive campaign to show they cared, were watching, and believed in the ability of their students to meet their learning objectives. Their kids did (yes tested) well; but what these teachers did, teachers might not expect to have to do, which was to build a disciplined family for their students in their classroom.

I'm wondering if this is Mastery's approach, that is, a highly structured class framework. Can you clarify what you mean by "testing factory"? Certainly I felt that "Test Prep" classes that were taught at my neighborhood school were pretty useless. Hopefully these were given up/no longer exist.

It is an odd statement that you would rather your child drop out and become illiterate than attend a charter school. First, why is your child's welfare less important than making a political statement? Second, charter schools are there to give you/parents a choice, that is, no one would make you send your child to one. It is also odd that you would be outraged about charters not being able to accommodate Special Ed IEPs, because once again, charters are there to offer an alternative, not a replacement for the traditional public school.

If you are upset about the inclusion of Special Ed test scores in a school's overall average for that test, that is something that should have been addressed when the District asked for feedback on revising their school report cards.

I never bothered to look into charter alternatives, because I homeschooled my children for several years, and I never expected the public school system to be adequate for all my children's educational needs, whether traditional or charter. Btw, if your child did drop out, chances are he/she would not end up illiterate if he/she were taught to ask, and find answers to his/her questions. Reading would then be something he/she would want to do.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 9, 2014 11:55 pm

Stop already with your neighborhood school that doesn't exist anymore. You believe what you want to believe, always have.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on May 10, 2014 1:15 am

You mean as opposed to what you believe.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 13, 2014 10:45 pm

Well said, Mastery Charter is abysmal. I was a teacher at Mastery Thomas Campus.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 9, 2014 1:59 pm

I want the District schools to grow not shut down, and that Mastery is presenting itself to parents as the only other option is troubling. I'm so glad for this decision but we cannot go through this process time and time again.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 9, 2014 4:59 pm

I don't understand this comment. Any thoughts? << "Mastery, for its part, said it has offered to continue working with the school, should the principal find that helpful. " >>

Submitted by Bill Hangley (not verified) on May 9, 2014 4:34 pm

FYI, Mastery's press release read: "Mastery has offered to share our experience and support should Ms. Bonner’s team feel it helpful." Among other things, I think Mastery's been involved in some teacher training, prof. development etc.

I never did hear back from Bonner to ask if she had any interest working with Mastery that way, but if she'd agreed to work with them, Mastery probably would have said so in its release. But I don't know that she's closed the door on that idea either.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 9, 2014 6:35 pm

I've worked for Mastery for 5 years. When I started we only had 4 campuses. I can honestly say that I've never met a more self-LESS man then Scot Gordon. Mastery's offer to help Steel even after the turn around fell through is because Mastery is basically 'open source'. Any school at anytime is welcome to copy anything we do if it means helping students grow academically or socially. We are not a 'test factory'. Sure. We teach and then assess if what we taught actually stuck. Did we teach it in a way that the students understood? If not, we will try again. How do you know if a teacher is affective without assessing? Colleges assess with ACTs and SATs. Do prep schools not 'teach to the test' in the case of those tests? Funny how no one complains about that.
Here's what you do. Go to a Mastery. Put on a visitor badge. Sit in a classroom. Until then...have some consideration for the 80 hours of work most Mastery teachers put a week. For less than the district pays. Why? Because we believe that 7th grade students who still read on a 2nd grade level is a sin.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on May 9, 2014 6:32 pm

Sure, I will take you up on that offer. May I spend two weeks at an elementary school close to Steel and two weeks at Gratz?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 9, 2014 7:12 pm

I work at Pastorius. Germantown. Come on down.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 9, 2014 9:35 pm

You probably need to reach out to Sheila Ballen if you want to visit a Mastery school. Head to Pastorius and check out some of the awesome pilots that are happening for the new vision of Mastery.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 9, 2014 8:50 pm

You shouldn't be working 80 hours a week. That is the real sin. That tells me that your administration doesn't value you as a person. They don't value your personal time or time with your family. They don't value you enough to pay you a living wage. They don't value you enough to realize that 80 hour work weeks burns teachers out. They don't value your mental and physical health. But don't worry, when you do burn out, they will get rid of you for a younger, less experienced, and cheaper version of you. Then you won't have to worry about 80 hour work weeks.

7th grade students who read on a 2nd grade level probably didn't have parents that read to them in their formative years. That is not your fault. I refuse to take blame for parents' shortcomings. I am an excellent teacher, and I do my best every single day. But I am curious, what do you do with a 7th grader who reads on a 2nd grade level. Do they stay in 7th grade until they get on grade level? How do you improve their level? What is your class size for Reading classes? What services are students eligible for when they have such severe reading deficiencies? These 7th graders surely must have an IEP. I am interested because if you have something that works and can help other reading teachers, then please share your expertise. I am not being ignorant or sarcastic because I teach older students and many of them aren't reading at grade level. Thank you.

Submitted by Annony (not verified) on May 10, 2014 6:01 am

Thank you for your post. Students do not miraculously jump several reading levels a year. (Maybe 2 but "jumping" significant reading levels indicates the initial reading level was off.) If Mastery, or any other charter company, claims to increase multiple reading levels within a short period of time, they are being disingenuous.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on May 14, 2014 5:50 am

I just ran across your comment. You are absolutely right. I taught reading to disabled readers, special ed students, and ELL students at UCHS for 20 years. Anyone who claims to increase multiple reading levels within a short time is either being disingenuous or does not know how reading ability grows or is appropriately measured.

Reading level is measured by grade level and a grade level is the amount of gain that a normal student normally grows in one year's time. It takes the average person a year to gain a year's growth. Anyone who claims "phenomenal growth" of their students in reading, such as Mastery, is questionable.

Reading tests like the PSSA's can be gamed to improve scores without increasing reading ability though with test preparation. That is why quick gains in test scores always level off.

There are no reading tests which can accurately measure reading growth monthly or weekly. Grade level equivalents are not reading levels at all. They are the bell curve statistically broken down. They are meaningless.

I will bet you that the student who is in 7th grade and reads at the 2nd grade level is dyslexic.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 13, 2014 10:40 pm

Lady, I worked as a teacher at Mastery. Only a white middle class lady would write the shit that you shoveled out.

Submitted by Julie Stapleton Carroll (not verified) on May 10, 2014 12:47 am

Take them up on their offer. Go visit a school. Sit in a classroom. Just last week our organization hosted a community forum at Pickett to discuss Germantown and Gentrification. Two Mastery students participated in the forum and were asked (before the full audience) their opinion. These two students (one who aspires to attend Penn and the other Temple) were incredibly well spoken, confident, and knowledgable about the subject we were discussing. Kudos to them.

The whole idea of new schools (charters) was to share ideas and grow for our kids. Let's do that.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on May 10, 2014 9:23 am

I absolutely, wholeheartedly agree with you. We should be sharing ideas and building trust.

I visted Mastery-Smedley back in 2012. Here is my report to the Notebook community. Please read it:

http://thenotebook.org/blog/124578/veteran-educator-visits-mastery-smedl...

How we evaluate schools and how we improve them must take into consideration many more factors than merely, test scores. It is impossible to do a professionally sound assessment of any school without first doing a comprehensive evaluation which includes many school visits and discussions with all of its community.

Collaboration and trust formation are much more powerful leadership practices than any adversarial processes. The prime example is Steel.

Submitted by Annony (not verified) on May 10, 2014 1:50 pm

While collaboration should the goal, the reality is the system is competitive. Charters compete or District students. Mastery has the funding and staff for heavy recruitment and they do recruit. Why did Mastery open an elementary school in South Philly this year while the SDP closed schools in South Philly? Mastery has "tools" it can use (e.g. "by any means necessary" student/ parent contract) that public schools do not have. Mastery also requires students to have a 76% passing grade. Seniors who do not have the average are returned to their neighborhood school if they want to graduate. Mastery has the funding to stock their schools with administrators. The School District does not.

Mastery bowed out of Steel because they lost. It has nothing to do with integrity.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 10, 2014 9:32 am

I worked at Mastery Gratz this school year. The climate outside the classrooms; wonderful. The climate inside the classrooms; same behaviors found in SDP high schools. They curse, they are disrespectful, they refuse to complete assignments. We must be mindful they are same children, only difference they have on Mastery uniforms. Mastery employs numerous support staff for climate. Their demerit system works well. Students aren't allowed in the door without their uniforms and id lanyards. Their hallways are always clear due to the two people sitting at each end of the hallways. When a student needs to go to the nurse, the student is first triaged over the phone. If the nurse is capable of assisting the student, someone escorts the student to the nurse office. Students must of the bathroom during their three minutes change of class time. No student is permitted to go to the bathroom during class unless they have earned a "special privilege" card.
If the SDP could adopt their climate model and employ the number of staff as Mastery schools, their climate would improve. Mastery has a HIGH turnover of teachers. They had several resign at their Gratz location this school year.
When you look at test scores....same Gratz students test scores.....

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 12, 2014 9:19 pm

If by "worked" you mean "resigned/fired", then you must have been having some big problems with classroom management even after all the supports were put in place for you. Good luck elsewhere without the support!

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