This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The slogan could be seen throughout Temple University’s Liacouras Center: "Excellence. No excuses."
Graduates echoed it in the stories of their high school careers, and speakers emphasized it in their advice to the class.
Mastery Charter Schools held its third annual college signing day Tuesday to honor the academic achievements of more than 550 graduates from five of the charter operator’s six Philadelphia high schools.
“You are now part of a family,” said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon in his opening address. “When you are part of a family, you are supported, you are loved, you are pushed, but you also have a responsibility.”
Along with family members and school staff, students from Mastery’s 15 city schools and its one Camden school attended the ceremony.
The auditorium was filled with school spirit: Cheerleaders waved pompoms and led dances to booming pop music. A marching band held a drumroll as thousands of audience members cheered and danced in their seats.
A college “roll call” gave students the chance to represent their future plans. Groups of students stood and proudly raised signs bearing the name of their future school when it was announced on stage.
Many students rose for Penn State University and for the Community College of Philadelphia. Private colleges like Tufts, Colby and state schools like Shippensburg University were also among the schools represented.
According to Mastery, 96 percent of this year’s seniors were accepted into a four-year or two-year college, technical, trade or service school, and other post-secondary programs.
College-going rates at Mastery’s schools have generally been higher than those of neighborhood schools. At Lenfest, 86 percent of students enrolled in a post-secondary institution after they graduated in 2014, according to School District data; the rates for Shoemaker, Thomas, and Pickett, were 74 percent, 70 percent, and 62 percent, respectively.
At Gratz, Mastery’s lone Renaissance-turnaround high school, the college-going rate was 34 percent.
Gordon applauded the class members for their accomplishments and expressed his desire for graduates to return to their Philadelphia roots after continuing their education. “We need you back here to make this a better world, to make your neighborhoods a better place,” Gordon said.
Echoing that sentiment, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Mayor Nutter appeared on the arena’s Jumbotron to congratulate students. Duncan advised them to provide “leadership and service in [their] communities,” and Nutter urged them to “make [their] neighborhoods better places.”
Yainai Burke of Mastery-Pickett, who intends to major in biology at Penn State University, expressed gratitude for the rigor of a Mastery education. “Mastery really guides you to college,” she said, adding that she can see herself becoming “a leader and a role model for my community.”
Vonshae Hubbard of Mastery-Shoemaker said that Mastery challenged her while supporting her. While Hubbard was in school, her mother passed away. To honor her late mother, she plans to study funeral services, she said. Mastery connected her with an internship at a funeral home, and this fall she will attend Mount Ida College, near Boston, one of the few schools that offers funeral studies as a major.
Hubbard, whose father isn’t working right now, also received college scholarships from Mastery and other sources. She cited the many scholarship opportunities at Mastery, including one earned for a service trip to build a school in South Africa, as the most rewarding part of her high school experience.
More than $18 million in scholarships to over 120 different post-secondary institutions had been awarded to this year’s graduates, according to Mastery officials.
In closing the ceremony, Gordon congratulated graduates for their accomplishments, but also pushed for students to complete the next step of college, to “graduate twice.”
“This is only your first graduation,” said Gordon.
Michaela Ward and Samantha Weiss are interns at the Notebook.