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Mastery wants a 6th grade at Smedley, Mann

Photo: Benjamin Herold

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

Mastery Charter is seeking to add a 6th grade at two of its new K-5 Renaissance schools, Mann and Smedley.

Delighted with the recent changes at their school, parents and community members on the School Advisory Council (SAC) at Mastery-Smedley are lining up in support of the move.

“The [council] is thrilled with how Mastery has transformed the school,” said SAC chair Ninette Cooper. “We don’t want to put students back into a system that was failing them in the first place.”

But Mastery’s efforts – which are raising sticky new questions about the intersection of state charter law, District charter policy, and the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative and facilities master planning process – face numerous potential roadblocks.

The most immediate obstacle is that adding grades would require changes to the charter for each school. An initial Mastery request to the District was not granted because current charter policy states that modifications can only be considered in the third and fifth year of a charter.

“Although we recognize that the SAC is pleased overall with the progress at Smedley and Mann, the schools have only been operating under Mastery for less than six months,” said the District in a prepared statement.

But in an emailed response to a request for comment, Mastery CEO Scott Gordon indicated that his request was still being considered.

“Clearly Renaissance Schools are different … so the District is figuring out how to handle it,” wrote Gordon. “They have also said they want the decision to be made in context, or as part, of their facilities planning process. So, my understanding is that they are considering our request as part of that process.”

In addition to concerns about how Mastery’s request will impact grade configurations and feeder patterns, the District is also facing lawsuits from seven other charter operators who claim that it is illegally imposing caps on their growth.

A move to expand Mastery’s capacity at newer schools while those charters’ expansion requests are pending would likely cause controversy.

Mastery’s push to add 6th grades at Mann and Smedley is part of a plan to create K-12 feeder patterns in West Philadelphia and Frankford. For Mastery to realize such a vision would require giving Mann and Smedley students first preference in admissions lotteries at Mastery-Shoemaker and Mastery-Lenfest, respectively. Both Shoemaker and Lenfest serve grades 7-12. Lenfest is in Center City.

Mastery has already requested that Mann students get such a preference at nearby Mastery Shoemaker, a turnaround charter with an existing preference for one of its historic feeder schools (Universal-Bluford). According to Gordon, there are enough slots in Shoemaker’s 7th grade to accommodate students from both schools. Those additional slots are currently subject to a lottery.

Lenfest, on the other hand, is a traditional charter school with an open lottery, as required by state law. Adding a preference for Smedley students would be an unprecedented move among Philadelphia charters.

“We are not certain if we can create first preference at Lenfest for Smedley students – we are exploring this now,” wrote Gordon. “If not, 6th graders from Smedley would simply apply through the normal lottery system at Lenfest.”

Even if Mastery is able to add the grades and adjust the feeder patterns, there would remain questions about how much those changes will cost and who will pay for them.

Mastery Smedley, for example, is already near its building capacity, meaning that a new 6th grade would require construction of an annex. Furthermore, Smedley’s ancient facility, constructed in 1927, is in desperate need of significant systems improvements, including a new boiler and a building-wide electrical upgrade.

With the District facing a massive budget shortfall and school closings expected as part of the facilities planning process, investing scarce resources in buildings that are currently being leased to a charter operator would likely be controversial.

Gordon, though, indicated that Mastery is prepared to commit $1 million towards the necessary building improvements at Smedley. He added that the facilities upgrades needed at the building are unrelated to the request to add a 6th grade.

“As I understand, the District had already earmarked Smedley for some significant renovation work. …We are anxious to get the project started in time for air conditioning season this year or certainly by next fall,” he wrote.

During a lively meeting of the Mastery Smedley SAC last Thursday night, parents and community members discussed the possible addition of a 6th grade.

Saying they were “thrilled” with the changes Mastery has made, most supported the idea in concept, but some expressed concern about the feasibility of the plan and wondered what the potential changes would mean for Harding Middle School, which Smedley currently feeds.

“I would love to see a 6th grade, but I think the energy of the community should be to try our best to correct what’s going on over at Harding,” argued parent Cecil Parsley. “If the District drags its feet [on upgrading Smedley,] we’re faced with [our] kids still having to go to Harding.”

Mastery-Smedley Principal Brian McLaughlin, sitting in on the meeting, advocated for the additional grade.

But after hearing from the council, he said, he also wanted to support efforts to improve neighboring schools.

“We don’t want to be [just making] change for Mastery,” said McLaughlin. “We want to be a game changer for the District.”

According to Smedley council member Kathy Beem, McLaughlin’s responsiveness is one of the big reasons Smedley parents and community members are so pleased with Mastery in the first place.

For Beem, the mother of a 5th grader at Mastery-Smedley, the question of 6th grade hits close to home.

“I’m just afraid that these kids will slip back into the routine of bullying and fighting [if they go to Harding,]” said Beem. “Our children need to stay here for 6th grade and continue on to Lenfest, where they can keep on getting encouraged and get ready for college.”

Members of the Mastery-Smedley SAC are planning to speak in support of the move at the January 17 SRC meeting.

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