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SRC to vote on turning over Young Scholars-Douglass to Mastery

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

The School Reform Commission plans to vote on a resolution Thursday that keeps open the academically struggling Young Scholars Frederick Douglass charter school in North Philadelphia on the condition that its management be taken over by Mastery Charter.

Douglass is one of the initial seven low-performing District schools given to a charter operator for academic turnaround in 2010 under the Renaissance schools initiative, and it is the first to be recommended for transfer from one charter operator to another.

The current operator, Scholar Academies, runs two other schools in Philadelphia, as well as schools in Washington, D.C., and Trenton. One of its other Philadelphia charters, Kenderton Elementary, is also a Renaissance school that the organization took over in 2013.

What to do with a poorly performing charter school that is itself a turnaround is new territory for the SRC — what Commissioner Feather Houstoun termed a "turnaround of a turnaround." In separate statements, both Scholar Academies and Mastery characterized the move as an attempt to maintain continuity for students and families. The handoff would avoid what could be a lengthy appeals process and years of uncertainty about the school’s future.

Both statements said that Mastery would build on the "foundation" established by Scholar Academies over the last five years. In fact, Mastery has promised to hire the teachers and support staff that had been offered contracts for next year by Scholar Academies.

In its statement, Scholar Academies defended its work at Douglass, saying that among its successes was "growing academically where neighboring District schools have not." The statement said that students’ achievement did improve under its watch, but "the growth was not as consistent as we think it could have been, particularly in the 2013-14 school year."

Still, "We feel strongly that we deserve to be renewed and proposed innovative solutions for continuing operation of the school with a keen focus on what is best for Douglass students," the statement said.

"It became very clear that the District did not have a plan for the school if they recommended nonrenewal to the SRC," the statement continued. "This would have resulted in chaos and upheaval for a neighborhood school community that has long been deprived of quality school options."

Scholar Academies approached Mastery about taking over the school.

"In a difficult and complicated situation, [Scholar Academies] chose to put kids and families first," Mastery CEO Scott Gordon said.

Scholar Academies CEO Lars Beck said that in five years at Douglass, the organization has "raised student achievement scores and created a safe and vibrant neighborhood school in which parents have chosen to reenroll their children."

Mastery’s statement praised Scholar Academies. It "has built a positive, close school community, increased enrollment, and made academic progress," the statement said.

Mastery met with the Douglass School Advisory Council, which visited other schools and supported the transfer in a letter to the SRC. Douglass parents met with Mastery officials on May 14, the statement said.

The three Mastery Renaissance turnarounds in the the first cohort were all renewed earlier this month and all showed significant test score increases.

The city now has 20 Renaissance turnaround charters, seven run by Mastery

Of the first seven Renaissance schools, the ones whose charters expire this year, the SRC last week voted to renew four and not to renew one — Bluford, operated by Universal Companies. There has been no action yet on the seventh, Stetson Middle School, which is operated by ASPIRA and is expected to be recommended for non-renewal.

Douglass, at 22th and Norris Streets in the heart of North Philadelphia, has a rich history. This week is the 61st anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed de jure school segregation — laws, mostly in Southern states, that mandated Black and White students be educated in separate schools.

But Philadelphia also had schools at that time that were deliberately segregated by policy. Douglass was one of 15 or so elementary schools in Philadelphia with only Black students and with an entirely Black staff. Some neighborhoods had Black schools and White schools.

Although there were schools in the city with desegregated student bodies, Douglass and other Black schools were maintained to employ Black teachers and principals. They were necessary because the Board of Education at the time did not allow Black teachers to teach White children or Black principals to supervise White teachers.