This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
On the first day of school last fall at Smedley Elementary in Philadelphia, Principal Brian McLaughlin assembled students in the sweltering cafeteria and pointed to a picture of a giant eraser projected onto a screen.
"I want you to think of all the things from last year that you may not have liked," McLaughlin said. "We’re going to erase those right now."
At a school as troubled as Smedley, erasing the past isn’t easy. Last year, more kids got suspended — one in five — than scored proficient on the state reading exam. An independent review found instruction sorely lacking.
But this year, some families of the school’s 588 students in grades K-5 who tried to remove their children last year are petitioning to add another grade. Smedley is no longer run by the School District of Philadelphia. Instead, it is being "restarted" by Mastery Charter Schools, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit hailed by President Barack Obama as proof that failing public schools can be quickly resuscitated.
Mastery operates just seven schools, all in Philadelphia, but has ascended to the national stage by inspiring other groups to take on a challenge once considered too daunting. The U.S. Department of Education, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and even Oprah Winfrey are giving the group millions to help spread its model. (Disclosure: The Gates Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this article.)
As part of a loose network of so-called "No Excuses" schools, Mastery enforces strict discipline. Walls are plastered with college pennants and inspirational quotes. Standardized test results are used to guide instruction, even in the earliest grades.
"Our plan is to get large enough to make a difference in an entire region and connect with other quality providers both to learn and to share," says Mastery CEO Scott Gordon.
The success of models like Mastery’s is helping fuel a push to convert more struggling schools into charters, says Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Hess worries, though, that policymakers might be embracing the "restart" model for turning around schools too quickly — before key questions about oversight and accountability are answered, and before it’s clear the model can work in the long run.
"The federal government is urging states to adopt policies that may or may not make sense three or four years out," says Hess. "It makes sense to try, but how do we pull the rip-cord if we need to?"
The restart challenge
Restarts are widely regarded as the most difficult of the four school reform models — the other three are "turnaround," "transformation," and "closure" — that the Obama administration is employing to raise graduation rates and ensure students leave high school ready for college or careers. After the U.S. Department of Education set aside $1.4 billion in School Improvement Grants last summer, just 31 schools elected to go the restart route out of more than 700 slated for turnaround nationally. President Obama has asked for an additional $600 million for this grant program in the FY 2012 budget.
For years, most charter operators — including the highly celebrated KIPP network, which operates 99 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia — have preferred building schools from scratch, adding one grade level per year, over trying to turn around existing schools.
Under the "restart" model, a district outsources management of an existing public school to an outside provider, often a charter-school operator like Mastery. The new management is then expected to overhaul school staff, renovate often-woeful facilities, revamp a dysfunctional school culture, win over disillusioned parents, and dramatically improve student test scores — all while serving the same kids as the year before.
Restarts are also controversial and politically sensitive, in part because they involve the use of public money to support privately managed schools. Unionized staff may be supplanted by non-union replacements, just like at charter schools.
"It’s an unbelievable opportunity to take a desperate situation and turn the whole thing around," Mastery’s Gordon says.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on Feb. 14 that some 1,000 schools across the United States are being turned around, and their progress is being closely watched. He expects preliminary data by summer about everything from test scores to attendance and graduation rates.
"Going forward, we’ll see which models worked best," Duncan said, adding that he’s thankful for "leadership and courage" at the local level, as well as "a sense of urgency [for transforming schools] that frankly we’ve never seen in this country."
Mastery started building its reputation in 2005, when the School District of Philadelphia handed over the first of three tough middle schools to Mastery. Test scores quickly improved at all three.
At Pickett Middle School, for example, just 14 percent of students scored proficient in math before Mastery arrived in 2007. After Mastery brought in new teachers and pushed them to work together, almost 70 percent of students scored proficient in math last year — a gain of 500 percent in just three years.
Some critics contend that the dramatic improvements are the result of a narrow focus on standardized tests, as well as steering the most disruptive kids elsewhere. But such criticism has been mostly muted, especially in comparison to the high-profile praise the group has received.
President Obama highlighted Mastery last July in a speech to the National Urban League, saying, "If Pickett can do it, every troubled school can do it"– remarks that have spurred some educators to embrace the restart model.
"I liken this to the earliest days of the charter-school movement," said Justin Cohen, president of the "school turnaround group" at Mass Insight, a nonprofit that promotes strategies to close achievement gaps. "We are seeing the emergence of strong organizations. Mastery is proving to charter operators that [restarting] is a viable option."
‘Not a minute to waste’
Last October, just a few months into Smedley Elementary’s new life as a Mastery charter school, chaos had been replaced by action.
During an assembly, Principal McLaughlin led his kindergartners and first-graders in songs about college, then preached his core message.
"There is not a minute to waste," McLaughlin told the wide-eyed 5- and 6-year olds. "The clock is ticking."
Back in their classroom, first-grade teacher Kallie Turner reinforced that message. When the children moved from their seats to the carpet, Turner timed them — a Mastery strategy for reducing wasted class time.
Later, Turner and a reading specialist kept the students on-task for over two hours, rotating groups through learning stations so struggling readers could learn letter-sounds while more advanced students practiced reading aloud.
Even after the final bell rang, Turner pushed the children.
"I don’t see anyone making a really smart choice to read a book while they wait," she said.
Anyone expecting first-grade classrooms to feature touchy-feely lessons on sharing, McLaughlin said, doesn’t grasp just how dire the situation is at a school like Smedley.
"We really can’t be wasteful of our students’ time," he explained. "We have students who enter school incredibly behind."
This year at Mastery-Smedley, just two or three incoming first-graders could read on grade level. Ninety-four percent are poor.
Mastery’s promising start is spurring similar groups eager to try their hands at restart, including Boston-based Unlocking Potential, founded by Scott Given, a 30-year-old former charter principal. Before he even opened up a school, Given had interest from 23 school districts, including those in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Haven, Conn. This fall, he’ll undertake the first restart in Massachusetts’ history.
The Mastery plan
The key to Mastery’s success, says Gordon, is not a particular educational philosophy, but good management practices — what he calls "the commonsense things that all high-performing organizations do."
That includes the ability to identify and reward talented employees while figuring out how to quickly improve or get rid of substandard ones. "I was shocked when I recognized that school districts don’t have the fundamentals of a talent-development process," says Gordon. "That is just the most essential thing to pretty much any other organization, profit or nonprofit, in the economy."
Gordon, who has an MBA from Yale, previously worked for General Foods Corp., then founded a worker-owned home health-care company. "My experience focusing on management has flavored how we do things," he says.
That’s an asset in the turbulent world of restarts, where providers lack control over student enrollment, facilities and project time lines — things that most traditional charter operators take for granted.
For example, when the School District of Philadelphia awarded Smedley and two other elementary schools to Mastery last spring, Gordon thought he had four months to retrofit outdated buildings. At the last minute, he was told the District would be running summer school in the buildings, leaving him just weeks to do the work.
Thanks to private donations, most of them local and anonymous, Mastery had $1 million set aside to upgrade each building. As soon as the keys were handed over, crews started working around the clock to repaint walls, replace toilet seats, and haul out thousands of pounds of trash. The schools opened smoothly in September.
The reliance on huge infusions of cash from private donors has raised questions about charter operators’ ability to replicate restart models.
"One of the limitations is that most of our widely admired models are relatively cost-intensive," says Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. "If you continue to add schools, unless you figure out ways to tap more public dollars or cut back your model, you need to grow your philanthropic support at a proportionate rate."
So far, Mastery has been able to do just that, drawing attention, and private dollars, for how it trains and supports teachers. In December, the Gates Foundation awarded Mastery nearly $2 million to replicate its professional development and coaching model. Teachers like Kallie Turner are trained to "narrate the positive" and embrace a system-wide approach to school discipline — like a "choice chart" to track student behavior — as well as a detailed approach to using test-score data.
Here to stay
Several early indicators point to Smedley becoming another successful Mastery restart.
Attendance and enrollment are up 3 and 7 percent, respectively. Predictive tests suggest significant gains in reading and math.
"It means the world to me that my son can come to a school where he’s actually being taught, where he feels safe, [and] where he feels loved," said Kathy Beem, the mother of a fifth-grader.
Mastery, meanwhile, has been approved to run as many as four more schools next year, including its first charter, which will not be a restart, in the devastatingly poor district of Camden, N.J. Districts including Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee are also seeking charter operators to restart challenging schools.
Mass Insight’s Cohen expects significant growth in regional operators trying to duplicate Mastery’s success, and predicts more districts will seek external turnaround partners — even if most of the accountability mechanisms for organizations that fail in their restart efforts remain untested.
"Mastery is proving that restarts are not impossible," he said.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.