August 3 — 1:41 pm, 2010

Mastery Charter summer school dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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