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‘Not a minute to waste’ – even in first grade

Photo: Benjamin Herold

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It’s not yet 8:30 am, it’s the Friday before Halloween, and the audience before him is made up of five- and six–year-olds.

But Mastery Charter-Smedley Elementary Principal Brian McLaughlin is not one to go off message, especially just two months into Mastery’s effort to turn around the long-struggling neighborhood elementary school in Frankford.

“We don’t have a minute to waste,” McLaughlin tells the children during their weekly community meeting. “The clock is ticking.”

For McLaughlin, his first two months at Smedley have been primarily about trying to infuse the entire building, from staff to students, with a “palpable sense of urgency.” If it’s a bit unsettling to outsiders to see that message being delivered to a roomful of kindergartners and 1st graders – well, McLaughlin suggests, maybe those outsiders should take another look at how Smedley students perform academically.

“We have students who are incredibly behind,” he explains. “I don’t think we can apologize for making sure that kids have the skills that they absolutely need.”

In 2009-10, Smedley’s last as a District-run school, less than a quarter of students were proficient in reading, and less than a third were proficient in math on state tests.

When Mastery took over running Smedley in August, they administered intake tests to assess the skills of incoming students. Of the school’s 104 1st graders, said McLaughlin, “somewhere over 75 of the kids were pre-primer, which means many of them didn’t know the alphabet. There were a couple of kids who were on grade level for reading – literally two or three.”

Mastery’s response to the data?

“Sometimes fun is going to be cut to make sure students are ready for the [next] grade,” explains McLaughlin. “[The achievement] gap already exists, even before kindergarten. As a school, when you’re balancing those two things, being a reader wins all the time in my book.”

Despite the harsh message, McLaughlin is by no means a drill sergeant, and students and staff seem to have largely bought in to his efforts to radically overhaul even the smallest parts of Smedley’s culture.

Gone is the chaos that parents and students say previously went unchecked in the hallways and stairs; now, one stairwell has been designated the “up” stairwell, one the “down,” and the distinction is rigidly enforced.

Teachers and staff are vigilant about making sure students’ shirts are tucked in at all times. From all corners, there are constant reminders that students should be in the “S.T.A.R.” position: sitting tall in their seats, tracking the speaker with their eyes, actively listening, and resting their hands in their laps or on their desks.

Mastery Smedley’s new culture is not just rules and regulations, however. McLaughlin and his staff have made a major push to teach students how to participate and celebrate without causing disruptions or distractions.

During that same community meeting last Friday morning, 150 children eagerly followed the 27-year-old, first-year principal through a series of lively call-and-response songs and chants. As teachers from each classroom recognized the students who best embodied Mastery’s “core values” during the past week, other students congratulated the winners with choreographed cheers.

Students sing the Mastery Charter college song.

Students receive awards for good behavior and conduct.

Smedley’s entirely new staff also seems to have largely conformed to the Mastery way. In their classrooms, many teachers employ the same techniques that McLaughlin modeled during the assembly. Staff have also adopted a common system of schoolwide discipline, the basics of Mastery’s “data-driven” approach to instruction at all grades, and a common language for talking about it all.

And it has all happened since August.

According to Mastery CEO Scott Gordon, the dramatic change in the climate at Smedley is consistent with Mastery’s plan for quickly turning around failing public schools.

“We put a lot of focus on ‘one culture,’” explained Gordon. “I don’t know that our culture is better than anyone else’s culture, but I do know that schools that have one culture, [where] all the adults are operating from [the same] playbook, clearly are more successful than [schools where] all the adults aren’t on the same page.”

First grade teacher Kallie Turner, who is in just her second year teaching, said that emphasis has made a world of difference, especially in terms of classroom management.

“Last year, I taught in a public school in Louisville,” explained Turner. “I felt that I wasn’t getting the help I needed to make my classroom successful. This year, there is a more universal strategy that is being used, so students know exactly how their behavior should be throughout the day. We only have a certain amount of time to learn as much as we can, so we have to stay super-focused.”

A 20-minute writing lesson in Turner’s classroom demonstrates just how quickly and deeply the Mastery culture has permeated Smedley’s classrooms.

Before instructing the 21 students present in her class to move from their seats to the carpet in the front of the room, Turner tells the children she will be timing them.

Thirty-two seconds later, the children are settled in on the carpet, giving each other a silent cheer for moving so quickly.

As Turner starts her lesson on adjectives, several children start to fidget and fuss. Turner first highlights the students who are staying focused. When the fidgeting continues, she sends one of the offending parties to go adjust his status on the classroom’s “choice chart” – a behavioral management tool that McLaughlin has mandated all K-2 teachers use in order to create a uniform approach to discipline for Smedley’s youngest children.

When Turner sends her children back to their seats to work on a short assignment incorporating both the writing lesson and the book that they have just read, all of the children get right to work. If students finish the assignment early, they pull out a book to read.

In Turner’s classroom, there is very little wasted time – and there is also very little laughter and play. Turner and her students are almost always “on-task” – and as a result, their individual personalities peek out only occasionally.

A handful of Smedley parents who spoke with the Notebook had mixed reactions to the dramatic changes at their children’s school.

“This year, the discipline is superb, especially in the classrooms,” says Tom Gibson, who has two sons at Mastery Smedley, one of whom is in Turner’s 1st grade classroom. “Last year, there was a lot of bullying, a lot disorganization. It’s 100 percent better.”

Despite their initial skepticism about Smedley’s conversion to a charter school, Gibson and his family are pleased with the results so far.

“We were thinking about transferring [our sons] out of there, but we decided to let them go in and see what happens,” explained Gibson. “So far, it’s to our liking.”

Kimberly Reynolds, however, said her daughter, a 3rd grader, is having a very different experience.

“Last year was much better than this year,” said Reynolds. “[Now], the work is really hard, and she ain’t ready for it. They don’t even have time to play. From the time she gets home at 4 until 7, that’s how long it takes her to do her homework.”

Unlike Gibson, who had one foot out the door before Mastery came to Smedley, the previously satisfied Reynolds says she is now on the verge of transferring her daughter out.

“She’s not going to be there too long,” explained Reynolds. “Smedley is really outrageous.”

As for McLaughlin, he argues that he and Mastery are constantly welcoming feedback about what works at Smedley. But he also emphasizes his steadfast belief in the approach that is now well underway.

“There is a model that we use,” said McLaughlin. “For me, it’s just a smart way to think. You’re getting people to think about what they want as an outcome, and not thinking about schooling as just an experiential thing.”

Benjamin Herold and the Notebook are reporting all year on Smedley and 12 other “turnaround schools” that are in their first year as charters or Promise Academies under Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools initiative. With the Obama administration having set a goal of turning around 5,000 failing schools nationally in the next five years, the Notebook is committed to tracking what happens on the ground in these schools locally.

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