March 8 — 6:08 pm, 2012

Veteran educator visits Mastery-Smedley; finds ‘order,’ smiles

warm welcome mastery Photo: Rich Migliore

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.

Yes, 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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