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Mastery chief speaks about Oprah

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

Oprah Winfrey has more clout than President Obama.

At least, that’s the way it seems to Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, which was one of six recipients of Oprah’s largesse this week. The talk show maven gave Mastery $1 million as part of her focus on education, a grant announced on her Monday show.

Gordon was kidding, but he said when President Obama gave a shout-out to Mastery at the NAACP convention in July, some people took notice. "But that pales in comparison to the amount of attention this has gotten," he said, still reeling from the news and the aftermath.

But Oprah’s grant, Gordon said, does not signal an effort to branch out of Philadelphia and go national with his school turnaround model.

"We’re planning on staying in Philadelphia as long as the Renaissance Schools initiative keeps going," he said. There are plans to open a charter school in Camden next year, he said.

Gordon, a businessman who founded Mastery nearly 10 years ago, has built his charter network largely through turning around Philadelphia public schools. Mastery began with a start-up charter high school in Center City, and he was then invited by former CEO Paul Vallas to transform three city middle schools.Those schools — Shoemaker, Thomas, and Pickett — for the most part, have shown significant test score gains and are all gradually becoming combination middle-high schools.

Now Mastery is the largest single provider under Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools initiative.

This month three city elementary schools, Smedley, Mann, and Harrity, opened up under the Mastery banner. Mastery schools are known for a no-nonsense, "sweat the small stuff" approach that includes longer day and year, uniforms, and high expectations.

Most of the teachers are young — Gordon said that the teachers in the three new schools average three years’ experience, and that 15 percent are members of Teach for America. There is a lot of emphasis on teacher training and coaching. First-year teachers make a little more than teachers who start teaching in the District, but raises are more dependent on teacher effectiveness, judged partly by tracking the progress of students in a teacher’s class.

"The pay for performance system supports a culture that we’re all here to get better, the teacher and the kids," he said.

It has already started building its own cadre of leaders that came up through the ranks.

And while Mastery has been criticized for focusing too tightly on raising test scores, Gordon said that "kids get more art and music and physical education than they did before turnaround. And we are one of the only schools in the U.S. in which all students take a class in social and emotional learning."

Gordon said that he views the Oprah award as not just for Mastery, but for the District’s turnaround effort.

"We feel there is this amazing experiment going on in Philadelphia," Gordon said. "I’m hoping that this grant gives the School District another jolt. In a general sense this is a vote of confidence, a sign of urgency that this is important work. This is an absolute crisis, and there’s not a moment to lose."

Mastery raises private funds and invests about $1 million to $1.5 million in each of its new schools, he said, for facilities improvements, books, computers, and other amenities. "It allows us to start in a building that look and feels fresh and bright. It creates a different environment when kids walk in the door."

He said that he is planning for three more schools in Philadelphia next year. "We told Oprah we would use this to open additional turnarounds." He was careful to add, "obviously, if we are selected" in the next round of Renaissance bidding. Each year, organizations apply to be turnaround partners.

Gordon said that he is cognizant of issues that come with trying to "scale up" too fast.

"My board knows that with scale sometimes comes bureaucracy and snuffing out of creativity and entrepreneurism," he said. "So we’ve been trying to think about how to do this differently."

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