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Winter 2009 Vol. 17. No. 3 Focus on School Climate

Theme articles

Mastery-Shoemaker: Sweating the small stuff

By by Jenny Seng on Dec 1, 2009 11:35 AM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Mastery’s code of conduct is conspicuous on the wall behind Principal Sharif El-Mekki and Assistant Principal of Instruction Stan Bobowski.

Erica Hall remembers attending Shoemaker Middle School in the days before it converted to a high school under Mastery Charter three years ago.

Students ran the halls, even burning bulletin boards. They disrespected teachers, who in turn seemed not to care whether the students learned anything.

“It was the type of school that you would just be there to be there, and you would pass without even doing anything,” said Erica, now an 11th grader.

But with Mastery, she said, “It’s a whole different setup.” For one, fighting is not tolerated. Teachers work until students grasp the material. Those doing mediocre work must meet with their teachers periodically to discuss their progress.

“If you have a 78, they still feel you can score higher,” she said. “Teachers show that they really want you to pass and [that] they really care.”

Erica said the new attitude changed her behavior.

“I used to come to class and play around in the halls, but Mastery made me learn that I could be something,” she said.

Shoemaker is one of three Mastery charters created from District middle schools; the two others are Pickett in Germantown and Thomas in South Philadelphia. Mastery founder Scott Gordon was invited by former CEO Paul Vallas to convert these schools after the success of his first school, Mastery-Lenfest in Center City.

Of 568 students in grades 7 through 11 at Mastery-Shoemaker, almost all are African American, 78 percent are economically disadvantaged, and 21 percent receive special education services. Principal Sharif El-Mekki said that about 60 percent come from feeder school Guion Bluford Elementary; 40 percent are chosen by lottery.

After Mastery’s takeover, violent incidents at Shoemaker decreased by 85 percent and test scores soared. The number of seventh graders reading at proficient levels went from 20 percent to 71 percent, while eighth graders reaching proficiency went from 43 to 84 percent. Math scores showed similar jumps.

Producing this climate turnaround, Gordon said, was not easy.

“The biggest thing is there is one culture; everyone plays by that playbook,” he said. “Kids are surrounded with one message.”

Parents and students must sign contracts, and teachers are trained to be consistent in enforcing the rules – even untucked uniform shirts are corrected. “Every little thing we’re sweating,” Gordon said.

There is a strict code of conduct with clear expectations and a three-tier discipline system.

Minor offenses are recorded on demerit cards, and students who collect six demerits must attend a silent, two-and-a-half hour detention.

For more serious offenses, including insubordination or arguing in class, the school will bring in the parent, assign the student a mentor, or convene a “team” of teachers, students, and parents to talk about the impact of the child’s misbehavior.

“When you do something bad and you have a conference with teachers, they pull out that contract and say you signed this, so there’s no ‘ifs, ands, or buts,’” Erica said. “You got to be here to learn.”

For expellable offenses, the principal first holds an informal hearing. That is followed by a formal one with a hearing officer drawn from the school’s board of trustees, who makes a recommendation to a committee.

But Gordon said the goal is to keep students. He disputes the view that Mastery has improved climate by ridding itself of the most difficult kids.

“There’s a huge sensitivity internally … because we’re accused of it all the time. But that is not our culture,” Gordon said. “We have a moral obligation [to educate these students], as any school does, but particularly a school that is doing turnarounds.”

Gordon said that before Mastery first took over in the fall of 2006, 35 percent of the students left Shoemaker in the course of a year. In 2008, the school reported that it was trying to lower attrition to 10 percent. Last school year, Gordon said, the attrition rate dropped below 7 percent.

However, because it is a school with a regular feeder pattern, if expelled students can’t find another school after 30 days, Mastery takes them back, Gordon said.

It also houses students with behavioral and psychological disabilities in a separate, self-contained program called MAPS, which stands for Mastery Alternate People Support program. In five classrooms, students receive individual and group therapy daily from a psychologist and work toward reintegration into the larger community.

Besides the swift consequences for bad behavior, Mastery has an elaborate rewards system. Each teacher tracks the behavior of each class, and the one with the highest rating gets a pizza party at the end of the week. Every six weeks, each grade level holds a “community” meeting of students and teachers to celebrate what they’ve accomplished.

“Every adult in the building advises in a single school culture and has the absolute highest expectations, not just for the students, but for themselves,” said El-Mekki.

He said students now believe in what Mastery can offer.

“It’s not just adults responding to students about their behavior,” he said. “It’s adults helping students understand why it’s important, what impact it has, and how it’s a barrier to their college career and goals.”

About the Author

Jenny Seng, a Notebook intern this fall, attends St. Joseph’s University.

Comments (28)

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on December 2, 2009 5:44 pm


As the author of one  of the center fold articles that describe how 3 schools responded to the challenge of providing a positive school climate I want to warn against the perhaps inevitable comparisons that putting these stories together invites.

From all indications Mastery is doing some good things that we all can and should learn from, but the playing field is not level when it comes to comparing charters and neighborhood public schools.   Charles Payne speaking here recently made the important point that charters are draining the social capital from neighborhood schools.   Engaged parents who are motivated to find better educational opportunities for their children are being drawn away from struggling neighborhood schools in favor of charters like Mastery.   This edge in social capital gives these schools distinct advantages.  

If Shoemaker took all, not just 60% of its students, from neighborhood feeder schools and had to meet the same standard that neighborhood public schools do before a student could be excluded then comparisons with regular neighborhood middle schools would be fair. 

This should not belittle the success Mastery has had at Shoemaker and elsewhere but it does put it in proper context. 

The original purpose of Charters, according ot early proponets,  was to promote innovation that could then be utilized in public schools.   Instead, while some innovation has undoubtedly occurred, the main impact has been to further stratify schooling.  Instead of a public school system that promises expanded opportunity for all we have a system that mimics that market economy, rewarding winners and punishing losers. 

Submitted by El-Mekki (not verified) on December 19, 2009 2:36 pm

Mr Whitehorne, which traditional middle/high school takes 100% of the elementary schools in its feeder pattern? We work hard to attract 100% of our students from Bluford. Last year, for example, we hosted students for 28 days to give them the support for transitioning. As a former principal in the district, pls know that we use the CSAP here as well as we did in the district. We had to send more students to CEP and other alternative schools, while at charters, we dont have that resource to support students. Charters do not drain social capital of communities. That allegation appears to be more appropriately leveled towards magnet schools that truly cream the top 15%ile of a community's student population. Charters are viable alternatives and partners of the communities they are in.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on December 19, 2009 3:00 pm

 As far as I know a neighborhood middle school or high school must take all students who live in that area.   Certainly some choose go elsewhere but that is a different matter.

I commend you for taking 60% students from Bluford and recognize that many charter schools do good work with students who are struggling.   I also agree with you that magnet schools have a negative impact on neighborhood schools. 

Nevertheless I think the selectivity that Charters are able to exercise, their freedom from some regulations and their autonomy make comparisons with regular schools unfair unless they are carefully qualified.   Many charters may well play positive roles in the communities they serve but the loss of engaged parents and more motivated students at traditional neighborhood schools would seem to be the price.  




Submitted by Anonymous on December 20, 2009 7:11 am

So, what is the solution? Is it equitable to get rid of all charters AND magnet schools and require all students to attend their neighborhood schools? Then, families who can afford to live in affluent areas of Philadelphia like Center City (including Queen Village, Northern Liberties, Bella Vista, Spring Garden, etc.), East Falls/ Mt. Airy/Chestnut Hill, etc. will have viable options while those of us who can not afford to live in affluent neighborhoods are "stuck." Philadelphia's system is very inequitable and charters, to a degree, have offered more options for low to moderate income families in many neighborhoods. Do they leave students with less motivated family members in neighborhoods schools - possibly. Philadelphia's school system is an inequitable as income distribution and because of the presence of magnet schools.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on December 20, 2009 9:33 pm

I would aruge the solution is to invest the resoures and make the reforms necessary to make neighborhood schools viable.   The problem is the political will to do that doesn't exist.   So, yes, people understandably scramble to get the best possible educational deal for their children they can.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 21, 2009 9:57 am

When the parents/ guardians of students in magnet schools are willing to put their children in neighborhood schools - yes, including Masterman, GAMP, Central, SLA, etc. - then there will be political will. Philadelphia has a long tradition of tracked schools. While a parent/guardian of a child in a magnet school may claim to advocated for all students, if their child is "protected" in a highly selective school like Masterman or Central, they lose credibility. So, instead of targeting parents/guardians who have worked for charters, treat these parents/guardians and staff with the respect given to parents whose kids are in magnet schools.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on December 21, 2009 10:11 am

Fair enough but I don't think it is about "targetting" parents who are trying to make the best choices for their children given the existing options.   We need to make the case that a strong public school system that is committed to equity is a broad social interest and win people to support it on that basis.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 20, 2009 8:48 am

I am a new visitor to this site and appreciate the opportunity to read about the Phila schools. One question I have is why students are allowed to roam the halls and behave so violently in some public schools, which they are obviously not allowed to do in the charter schools. I've read that legal restrictions and/or administrators don't allow students to be punished or separated into detention halls but I have a hard time accepting that. This article makes a good case for the argument that the vast majority of the kids will follow rules that are communicated clearly and enforced consistently. That is one apparent outcome in charter schools that other public schools should be able to notice and emulate. thank you for any insights you can share.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on December 20, 2009 9:00 pm

I don't think any school  administrator would say that students are allowed to roam the halls or behave violently but, unfortunately, these behaviors are all too common in many of our schools.   

As the current issue of the Notebook suggests these problems are not inevitable but fixing them isn't easy.

There are some legal restrictions that constrain administrators.   For example special education students can only be suspended for a limited number of days and are more difficult to transfer for disciplinary reasons.   But personally I don't think these restrictions are the central problem.   As you point out clearly communicated expectations that are taken seriously by the whole staff is a big part of the solution.   Equally important is establishing close relationships based on mutual respect between staff and students.  Finally if students are being provided with effective instruction there going  to be more engaged and less likely to cut or disrupt classes.   Those are the three areas I think we need to concentrate on to improve the climate in our schools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 20, 2009 11:00 pm

I've been in this school...and for all the was chaotic and out of many of the classes I saw...

I think this school is just as bad as the comprehensive schools in Philly...

Anyone agree?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 25, 2013 2:09 am
No I wouldn't think anybody would agree to any of you guys harsh statements. I am a graduate from Mastery Charter Shoemaker Campus. I've witness with my own eyes from the start of 2006-2007 school year until when I graduated. It's nothing like you guys are saying, Mastery completely turned my life around for the better. How dare people that only visited the school once or twice and criticize their learning structures is outrageous. All you people are plain childish and ignorant.
Submitted by tom-104 on June 25, 2013 6:05 am
Congratulations on turning your life around. The schools are in crisis and it is good you found your way to go forward amidst the chaos. I urge you, however, to look at the big picture beyond your own situation. What is being created is a segregated school system where a select group of students can go to secure and well funded charters while public school students are left with an inferior education due to a political agenda by right-wing politicians to privatize schools. All students deserve what you had but the majority are being left behind in a educational system that has been inequitably funded for years and is now being strangled.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 21, 2009 9:41 am

Suspension is not a solution - it is a stop gap measure. Ideally, there should be opportunities for close relationships to be established but that is often stimied by a top-down approach to curriculum in neighborhood schools. Also, there are students, not only special education but more likely than not, with social /emotional / mental health issues that can not be addressed by a school. I've had students who "lose it" on a regular basis. Suspending them doesn't stop them from "losing it." An array of mental health services are needed to make long term changes which will enable the students to learn and not interfere with the learning of their peers.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on December 21, 2009 10:19 am


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 21, 2009 11:11 am

Students roam the halls due to one reason . . . weak administrators. Too many principals want somebody else to do their job for them, discipline. They don't support their staffs and yet expect their teachers to continually achieve despite the administrative failings. That's why underreporting is rampant in the Philadelphia School District. Eventually it will spill out into something like we just had at South Philly High. The background checks for administrators and school police are a joke. Merely a warm body in the office to maintain appearances.

Submitted by mad west philly mom (not verified) on December 27, 2009 9:45 am

Mastery can claim all they want that they don't push out their weakest students, we in the community know better than that. Tout test scores all you want, my child was pushed out just like others. Bleeding 1/3 of the student body in year one is a strong form of social control for those other 2/3 of students. Unfortunately (or fortunately) neighborhood schools don't have that luxury. No one is also talking about environment. What about the resources that are pumped into mastery for their state of the art rehabbed building. Why didn't the original shoemaker get bright new paint, decals on glass walls, and fancy circulation desks that made for a decreased prison state. Regular district schools do not get those resources. Inequity is written all over this thing!

El Mekki, I respect you as an administrator, and I know many teachers who have worked under you and followed you--but please don't insinuate that your resources and support are not much greener in the mastery bubble.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 27, 2009 11:09 pm

Nice to hear from the seldom heard side of charrter schools. The Philly media is too endebted to the charter PRs to ever reveal anything, but what they want the public to hear.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 19, 2010 8:46 pm

The resources that Mastery receives is a result of grant writers and private donations. Mastery, and all charter schools, get less money per student than a neighborhood school.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 30, 2010 2:49 pm

please....they get much more resources...if any public school could have so much money from gov.budget, it would show much more real success.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 27, 2009 5:22 pm

West Philly...I was in one of those Mastery schools...and they/it was just as out of control as the comprehensive schools...Mastery has an excellent PR they can make a purse out of a sow's ear...if you have the right PR firm...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 30, 2010 2:11 pm

students are the same's just about money...who can "show" a better score, gets a bigger piece of a cake...fake statistics....

Submitted by A Teacher (not verified) on February 10, 2010 9:15 pm

I teach at a Philadelphia charter school. I've also taught at a district school. In many ways we, the charter school, have less resources - physical space, lab materials, professional development offerings, program access. We also have some self-selection in our student body, although they are by no means hand-picked. Yes, that does change the game somewhat. Still 80% of our kids are designated as low income, 15% special ed, and we provide a safe space for them to get an education that will prepare them for college.

I'll also say that the teachers, students, and administrators all work incredibly hard as a whole. We've created a contained space to create order, build community, and work toward a shared goal. We plan to expand to help more kids, with a goal of making enough change to tip Philly schools back in a healthier direction. Point being that we do not consider ourselves a bubble and think often of our relationship to the city's education culture as a whole.

If we can't save all the kids, we catch the ones we can and keep trying to broaden our reach. But we don't let a few really troubled kids totally disrupt the classroom or a lousy teacher waste kids' time. Yes, we understand that every disruptive or violent child is troubled and try to assist them, and what teacher wants to do a bad job? We could do more with more resources, which we are always trying to obtain. Still, we don't let any person take away the right of others to get an education.

Yes, I understand it's triage. Most people hate to admit that, and I feel for all the kids who are less served than ours. Still, I wouldn't teach at most district schools as they are (chaotic), and I'm proud to still be in teaching, given the attrition rate for teachers, and to not have fled to the suburbs. Many of our parents have said similar, often adding that they couldn't afford to leave anyway. Instead of doing nothing, we do what we can, and we must create schools that actually keep students and teachers in them - productive and safe.

That said, I also fully respect teachers and students in neighborhood schools who do all that they can, many of whom are very effective. Frankly, though, we must be honest that these are too rare heroes, and we can't build a school system on the backs of their sacrifice. Charters are just one way to reform a very damaged system. I know others are tackling these problems from different angles.

No, charters are not perfect replicable models. But they do have effective programs that can be instructive, and they do create a space for hard-working and decently behaved (not necessarily high testing) students to thrive. They keep good teachers and families in the city. They set a high standard and prove to many parents, students, and teachers that hard work and respect can pay off. That is an important lesson for many who have early doubted that premise.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 10, 2010 10:57 pm

The question remains, why are public schools not given the option of screening out potential troublemakers the way charters allowed to do? Even the Marines don't have take everybody that walks in off the street. The district isn't even bothering to test kids that have been in the CSAP process for years, some schools have no psychologist even. So the special ed. population at many public schools is hidden and those students are merely dumped into mainstream classrooms for the sake of the District's financial convience. Why is it charters hire teachers that get fired from public schools? You'd think they wouldn't want to know about them if they trying to distance themselves from the publics.

Submitted by Annoymous (not verified) on February 10, 2010 11:04 pm

SDP schools do get rid of "troublemakers." Every year there is a "weeding" out of 9th graders in particular. I'm a a school which has "removed" a number of students this year. Yes, most go to "discipline schools." It may not be as many as charters but there is "weeding" that goes on in all neighborhood high schools. I've also seen some "troublemakers" go to charters.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 11, 2010 10:50 am

I've seen a number of our students go to charters (usually the few that the principal has deemed flunking) only to see them return the next year, if not within the same year. As for getting rid of troublemakers by 9th grade it's somewhat pointless. The house is already on fire by that point. We need to start doing it during the elementary years, especialy from third grade on. That is when much of our math and reading instructional time gets wasted "babysitting" problem students.

Submitted by Mrs. G (not verified) on October 1, 2010 8:03 am

We do not have to get rid of kids. These kinds of comments are the very reason teachers are constantly being bashed. They're children, we're the adults and they want us to set limits and teach them the proper way to behave. I have had many challenging students in my classroom, and while I admit I was not able to reach every one, for the most part the students in my class do what they're supposed to do. First, there's little or no down time, students are almost always engaged in a learning activity. Second, I do not accept poor behavior. As for students with special needs, I have been in an inclusion classroom for most of my career and it has been a great experience for both my students and me. Most of these students have shown marked improvement (although the ridiculous NCLB laws would suggest otherwise) often scoring 100 to 150 points higher in a year on the Reading PSSA. Although they may still be below basic, these successes need to be celebrated. Additionally, if they continue this trend, they will certainly reach proficient before the end of their education.

We have to stop complaining and start coming up with solutions to the problems. Standing together we can be heard. First, insist the District and Empowerment Teams do their job. Stop remediating everyone and start looking at what each school needs to meet AYP. If a school misses AYP because of one subgroup, that needs to be addressed, not blindly having all students participate in Corrective Reading, or worse Corrective Math. I keep hearing good teaching means ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL. Let's start by forcing adminstration to practice what it preaches.

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