This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
With 11,500 students in 16 schools across Philadelphia, Mastery Schools operates almost like a district-within-a-district – particularly when dealing with an unprecedented situation like the coronavirus.
The charter organization is distributing meals twice a week in its schools. On Thursday, said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon, it gave out 14,466 meals to nearly 5,000 families. It also has a plan for staff to regularly check in with students, and those who have been identified as the most vulnerable are getting extra attention. (See an updated list of school meal distribution sites for next week here. School District sites and Mastery will distribute on Mondays and Thursdays; days may vary for other sites.)
Most of Mastery’s sites are former District schools in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, which were turned over to the charter organization in hopes of improving academic outcomes. About a quarter of its students are in special education.
Although it is also ramping up a robust academic program for students and parents to tap into, “our first priority is to attend to the well-being of our community,” Gordon said. “We are really pained by the depth of need this crisis is revealing.”
The District, which is distributing meals at 30 sites every day, is coordinating with Mastery. Families do not have to be enrolled in a Mastery school in order to get meals at their sites. The reciprocal is true regarding the District sites. Meals are distributed Mondays and Thursdays, Gordon said.
The sites “are staffed by our operations team and volunteers from Mastery staff. Everyone is doing the protocol of being spaced six feet apart and using hand sanitizer,” he said.
Mastery is also seeking contributions of food and books to give to its families.
Each teacher at Mastery has a group of students to check in with twice a week. By the end of Friday, he said, every Mastery student and family will get a call from a Mastery teacher.
For “families we know are dealing with more challenges,” deans and social workers are connecting with them daily under a plan the organization is calling its “home mentoring program.”
It has a checklist of how to conduct conversations in a way that will promote useful communication, for instance, asking the student what they are grateful for or to share their favorite joke before asking how they feel. The interactions also include setting up a schedule and keeping track of whether the student kept it. It also has guidance on “calming strategies” to use if the student is upset. And it has a script for connecting with parents and guardians.
The first phase of the academic plan is to engage families in reading, and if they have access, online resources curated by Mastery. Parents can go to a central login to find these resources, which include grade-level materials in math and reading.
But it has also invested $300,000 in mailing printed learning packets to every household.
The printed material forms the “backbone of our academic program,” Gordon said, especially if the school shutdown is extended beyond the current two weeks.
“This is a social justice issue,” he said. “We have kids who don’t have access to online.”
At this point, he said, there is no plan to distribute technology to students like tablets or Chromebooks, “but that would change.”
Most of the academic resources that the organization is using is accessible by phone, he said. “That said, we need to make sure that we don’t miss anyone, so the plan is that we will get hard copies in every student’s hands.”
Mastery is able to track whether families are engaging with the online resources available and can adjust interventions based on that information. They are also tracking students who have disabilities, and “there is the expectation to modify materials for students based on their particular level of needs.”
He added, though, that the academic work “won’t be graded, and students won’t be penalized if they don’t complete it” – speaking to the equity and access concerns that have thrown a wrench into schools’ online learning efforts across the country. “But the expectation is that we’re all on the same page about students continuing to learn.”
Gordon said that similar programs and services were being provided for Mastery’s 2,500 students in Camden. Information is updated regularly on Twitter at @mastery_schools.