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‘A brand new day’

Photo: Benjamin Herold

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

Seeking to get a jump on their ambitious change agendas, two of the District’s new Renaissance charter operators opened their doors early this week.

By 8:30 in the morning on September 1, all of the fourth and fifth graders at the new Mastery Charter Smedley Elementary School in Frankford were assembled in the sweltering cafeteria for a combination PowerPoint presentation and pep rally.

“On the screen, you see a big eraser,” preached Brian McLaughlin, Smedley’s energetic new principal who, at 27, is just a few years removed from a stint as a Teach for America corps members at Stetson Middle School.

“I want you to think of all the things from last year that may not have been things you liked,” said McLaughlin. “We’re going to erase those right now.”

Mastery opened Smedley, Mann, and Harrity Elementary schools on September 1, and Young Scholars Charter School opened Douglass Elementary on August 31. For both, the focus of the weeklong head start is establishing a new school culture and new expectations.

“It’s really working on procedures and routines,” explained Lars Beck, CEO of Young Scholars. “We mix in assessments to get a good handle on where students are academically. But we really try hard from day one to reframe expectations.”

Wiping the slate clean at some of the District’s most troubled schools will be no easy task, however.

At Smedley, for example, fewer than 30 percent of students were proficient in math last year, and fewer than 20 percent were proficient in reading. An independent review found the school to suffer from “a lack of clear leadership” and concluded that “instruction is not occurring in most classrooms.” Parents complained about the lack of safety for their children and an unwelcoming atmosphere for themselves.

“My son had ADHD and autism, but [the school] didn’t address his problems at all [last year],” said Desiree Murphy, 24. “He pretty much failed everything and was below basic the entire year, but they passed him to the second grade because he only missed three days.”

On the first day, some of the changes that Murphy and other parents say they wanted were evident.

Outside the school, nearly a dozen staff members, including McLaughlin, greeted students and parents – and checked to make sure students were in full uniform, with their shirts completely tucked in.

Inside the building, fresh paint, new windows, and new furniture – and an entirely new staff – awaited the children.

But for longtime Frankford residents like Gwendolyn Pickens, 42 and the mother of three Smedley students, such changes are only a first step.

“The building looks a little different, and the staff look pleasant and professional,” said Pickens. “But I want my children to be able to sit and learn without being disturbed. I’ll have to wait til the year goes on some to really get a good impression of it.”

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