This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School Advisory Councils (SACs) at Simon Gratz High and George Clymer Elementary schools have both recommended that Mastery Charter be selected as their “turnaround team” for next year, according to multiple sources.
The Notebook obtained reliable – but unofficial – accounts of the votes from sources connected to each council. The SAC recommendations are not binding on Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
But they are an initial vindication of Mastery’s aggressive decision to go all-in on Gratz and Clymer – a strategy that CEO Scott Gordon described as "extremely risky" because it could have cost the organization millions had it backfired.
Last week, SACs at six so-called “Renaissance Match” schools closed a whirlwind vetting process by voting on their preferred providers from among a group of District-approved options. Ackerman will weigh those preferences before making her recommendations to the School Reform Commission, which is scheduled to vote on her proposed matches this Wednesday.
The District does not intend to officially reveal either the schools’ preferences or Ackerman’s recommendations prior to Wednesday’s SRC vote. Unlike last year, the District also did not make public the names or affiliations of the members of this year’s SACs.
Last year, six of the eight schools slated to become Renaissance charters were given their SAC’s first choice. Ackerman awarded Douglass Elementary to Young Scholars (now Scholar Academies), despite the SAC choosing Mastery. At West Philadelphia High, the Renaissance process was shut down altogether.
This year, Mastery sought the opportunity to turn around an established neighborhood high school, something it has never done before. But officials felt they could only succeed next year if they selected a single target and began preparing immediately. Mastery also was adamant that it would only pursue schools in the same feeder pattern as part of its focus on creating K-12 networks.
Mastery took many risks in pursuing that strategy, said Gordon.
In an interview last week, he said that Mastery invested at least $1 million in providing yearlong apprenticeships for twelve senior staff people expected to comprise the leadership teams at next year’s new Mastery schools.
Without Gratz and Clymer, they may not have schools to lead. Although Mastery recently announced it will be taking over the Hardy Williams Academy Charter School in West Philadelphia, it is delaying plans to open a new charter school in Camden.
In addition, said Gordon, Mastery may also have to return a portion of the millions of dollars in grant money it has received in the past year – including $1 million from Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network – if it is not ultimately awarded Gratz and Clymer. Some of the grants are dedicated to supporting Mastery’s expansion. This year, Mastery operated seven schools, including three Renaissance charters.
With so much riding on the outcome of the two SAC votes, Mastery put on a six-week full court press to convince parents and community members that they were the best available option.
Gordon hired a team of consultants, including 29-year old Erin Trent, to reach out to the neighborhoods surrounding the schools.
“Really, it was a lot of listening,” said Trent, who said she answered questions from hundreds of parents, met with legislative leaders, visited community organizations to learn about the programs they offer, and spent countless hours on the phone encouraging people to attend tours of existing Mastery schools.
All told, said Mastery officials, the organizers talked with over 300 people and attended dozens of meetings.
“We needed to learn about these schools and communities, to really know their issues and understand [their] particularities, in order to present effectively,” said Gordon. “A good model always customizes at some level to individual circumstances.”
As the result of Mastery’s outreach efforts, said Gordon, his team learned about the strength of the Gratz alumni network and the problem of neighborhood conflicts spilling into the school. That knowledge influenced not only his pitch to the Gratz SAC, he said, but also preliminary planning efforts that are already underway.
“Hopefully, I was able to make a compelling case that if we’re awarded [Gratz], we’re going to jump on those relationships,” said Gordon. “We also began adjusting our plans about how security should go [at the school], making sure we have the budget for staff to [work] with neighborhood groups and block captains to help with the problem.”
Mastery also relied heavily on a contingent of parent and student volunteers to give firsthand testimony about the Mastery approach during site visits for SAC members at current Mastery schools and public forums at the two new Renaissance schools.
At Clymer, for example, Gordon briefly fielded a question from the SAC about how Mastery would use incentives to motivate students, then redirected it to Tiffany Toomer, an 11th grader at Mastery Pickett.
“Back in 8th grade, it was merits. If we got 25 merits, we would go to Dave & Buster’s on a class trip,” Toomer told the audience at Clymer. “Recently, the 8th graders went to a Broadway show.”
Despite Mastery’s efforts, there were numerous obstacles.
Some on the SACs felt that Mastery’s approach was “over the top.” This year’s timeline was compressed and, some say, disorganized. Many at Gratz, at least, are still upset that their school was slated for Renaissance turnaround in the first place.
And Universal Companies, the South Philadelphia-based nonprofit founded by music mogul Kenny Gamble, made a strong pitch, emphasizing its comprehensive neighborhood development approach, which includes significant residential development efforts in the Nicetown section of North Philadelphia.
“You can’t just parachute into a school,” Chief Financial Officer Shahied Dawan told the crowd at Clymer, drawing a contrast with Mastery. “A school is not an island. You can’t be successful in a community if students are walking though poverty, by dilapidated housing, by businesses you don’t own.”
In the end, Universal was the second choice of both the Gratz and Clymer SACs, with Mosaica Turnaround Teams bringing up the rear, according to the sources.
For Eazle Stephens, a retired teacher and Gratz SAC member who taught physical education and dance at the school for 44 years, the entire process was difficult.
“Really, I didn’t want anybody,” said the 72-year old Stephens, who lamented Gratz’s recent decline, including what she described as a “state-of-the-art dance facility that took 30 years to get” and is now out of use.
faced with having to make a choice, she actively engaged the process, attending numerous meetings at the school and going on site visits with the providers.
Ultimately, she said, it was Mastery’s ace in the hole that swayed
her the SAC.
“Mastery sealed it when they came out with the video with Oprah,” said Stephens.
“She talked about how they turned Pickett [Middle School] around. That kind of put the icing on the cake.”