This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
When Mastery Charter took over Simon Gratz High School in 2011, the organization was getting into territory it had never been in before.
Mastery’s prior experience with 9th graders had been in the school they started – Lenfest – and in schools they had built up from the 7th grade.
But Gratz was different – a 9th-through-12th grade comprehensive high school that had recently hit a low point in its storied history. When converted to a Renaissance charter in 2011, Gratz was listed by the state as “persistently dangerous,” with a graduation rate under 50 percent and student proficiency rates in the teens.
After a difficult first year, Mastery made adjustments. One was to create a separate 9th-grade academy for the class of nearly 350 freshmen.
“We found that our students came in at so many different levels, we needed to create a separate academy to get them to buy into their education and to the high school scene,” said Peter Langer, the academy’s 29-year-old principal.
What the first year taught them, according to Langer and several teachers, was the need to give more focused attention to the 9th-grade class and constantly reassess students’ needs rather than push a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
Besides creating the separate academy, Mastery-Gratz this year made numerous changes to the curriculum and instruction for its 9th graders.
Although final data aren’t in for the year, officials say that serious incidents are down – Gratz came off the “persistently dangerous” list last year – and benchmark testing is showing more rapid academic growth for most students, even those at the lowest levels.
Last year, without the separate academy, 319 students completed 9th grade while 22 were retained, Mastery officials said. Ten of the 22 stayed to repeat the grade at Mastery, while 12 transferred out.
The new academy is self-contained. Students and faculty use a separate entrance and don’t go into the part of the building that houses the upperclassmen.
“The goal is building community and setting clear behavioral and academic expectations,” Langer said.
“They give us a lot of opportunities,” said Nychelle Hamiel, 15, who started 9th grade in 2011 at Northeast High but found it hard to adjust and got into trouble. Here she is repeating the grade but is in the honors program. She said at Gratz, “We have mediation. … We sit down and talk it out one-on-one to get to the root of the problem.”
Following its mantra of “sweating the small stuff,” Mastery spends days orienting students and families to behavior expectations.
Its disciplinary system uses traditional detention (after six minor offenses like talking in class), and peer mediation for some offenses. It sends disruptive students – more than 10 percent of the 9th-grade class – to two programs operated by private providers.
The in-house one for less serious offenses is just for Gratz students and run by Camelot. Twelve 9th graders were there in March; seven others returned to the main program, Mastery officials said.
There were 28 students in the off-site Success Academy in Germantown, a more regimented environment for students who have committed serious offenses. The Wayne Avenue site functions as a disciplinary placement for Mastery’s six high schools. As of mid-March, more than one-fifth of the 125 spots in the program are occupied by Gratz 9th graders.
The goal is to reintegrate all those students back. “They’re absolutely still our kids,” said Mastery spokesperson Sheila Ballen. She expressed confidence that the school will reduce its dependency on these programs over time.
Langer said that reading levels of the entering students range from kindergarten to 12th grade, with some 20 percent testing at 4th grade or below. More than a quarter – 94 of 347 students – are in special education.
“The best thing about the [9th-grade academy] is that it is meeting each child where they are,” said assistant principal for instruction Nadia Bennett, adding that the tailored instruction is still designed to be “rigorous and challenging.”
Most of the students move through a curriculum that includes the standard courses of African-American history, Physical Science, Literature, Composition, and Algebra.
Last year, all students were expected to read the same texts, 9th-grade classics like Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Raisin in the Sun. This year, however, the game plan changed because so many students were so far behind in their reading skills.
“Last year, we didn’t adjust the novels for such a level,” said Langer. “The lowest-level students were asked to read books that were too high for them … and they didn’t improve.”
This year, benchmark tracking indicates that the lowest readers are making more rapid progress, he said.
About 68 9th graders with the lowest skills skip Physical Science and follow a separate track of developmental classes, getting 12 hours of reading a week including “modified literature” and “reading intervention,” which includes basic instruction in phonics and vocabulary.
On a March morning, teacher Maggie Sieleman-Ross was in a corner of one of these classrooms, surrounded by half a dozen students going over different words containing the root “act” – words like activity, interaction, transaction and subtraction – and asking them to use one in a sentence.
In another part of the room, several other students were reading independently. Teacher Angela Calpin was working with a third group on Uncle Tom’s Cabin – starting with the note that “a cabin is a small place people live.”
The students in this track may read novels like Maniac Magee and books by author Walter Dean Myers.
“We’re not lowering the bar; we’re giving students support where they need it so they can eventually meet the bar,” said Langer.
Students have responded to “challenge texts” that are above their level, said Sieleman-Ross, who like many of the other young teachers at Gratz is an alumna of Teach for America. She was pleasantly surprised when “the kids who showed the biggest growth were the ones who got the challenge texts.”
On the other end of the spectrum, this year Mastery created an honors program that enrolls 60 students. They get enrichment, such as college trips and the opportunity, this year, to see the Arden Theatre production of Raisin in the Sun after reading the play.
In urban high schools, passing algebra often is a difficult hurdle for 9th graders. For math, Mastery is conducting a pilot project to teach algebra using “blended learning.” Students work individually through lessons in a computer program until they master the material.
In a large room, several instructors, including part-time tutors, are there to help and conduct individual and small-group lessons on difficult concepts. Nearly 150 students are learning math this way.
Social and Emotional Learning
Academics are only part of the 9th-grade experience. Each day starts with a “circle,” a kind of structured homeroom in which students discuss what has happened since school ended the day before.
And the day also includes two other classes: Social and Emotional Learning and an end-of-the-day study hall called Mastery Class.
The Social and Emotional Learning class, a Mastery staple, focuses on building skills and behaviors that often trip up young people. Topics include how to talk to teachers and parents and resolve conflicts. The classes often have scripts and use role-playing.
“It explicitly teaches students when and how to have a conversation with a teacher he or she has a disagreement with,” said science teacher Sophia Seifert. Too many students can rationalize cutting class if they feel a teacher has treated them unjustly, she said; this is “to encourage positive behaviors, to make them think of the consequences.”
There is also a supplemental emotional support program, with a social worker, for about 30 students with special needs.
Like at other Mastery schools, teachers advertise their alma maters. College attendance is promoted as the goal for all, even those who are now far behind.
But Gratz has some catching up to do with other Mastery campuses. Ninth-grade attendance across all the schools is 91 percent, while at Gratz it is 85 percent.
At Mastery-Shoemaker, where attendance is 95 percent, principal Sharif El-Mekki said that the school’s 7-12 grade structure definitely helps with the important 9th-grade transition – making it more of a non-issue.
“The longevity and relationship-building that occurs in 7th grade pans out naturally,” he said. “The fact that we’re 7-12 has tremendous advantages.”
Gratz has approval to operate 6th through 12th grades but has no immediate plans to add the lower grades. It must still work that out with the School District, said Ballen.