Sarah Garland writes in the Hechinger Report about a change of direction for the Mastery Charter chain in Philadelphia. The CEO of Mastery, Scott Gordon, has decided to ease up on the strict rules of “no-excuses.” Garland believes that what Mastery does and how it works out might affect no-excuses charters across the nation.


I am not convinced that what happens in the Simon Gratz High School, a charter school in Philadelphia, will change the direction of no-excuses charters nationally, but it is an interesting story anyway.


Garland acknowledges that critics blame charters for the near-collapse of the Philadelphia public school system, but she leaves unresolved whether Mastery is the solution or the problem.


Garland writes:



More than 40 percent of the high school’s 280 freshmen show up reading below a fifth-grade level. Several city special-education programs are located at the school, so about a third of students also have special needs, ranging from cognitive disabilities to emotional disorders. In 2011, the year before Mastery took over, the graduation rate was 58 percent.

Administrators started out by instituting the no-excuses playbook, as Mastery had done at several of its other institutions. Under this approach, students are held to high expectations no matter what circumstances they come from – or what happens at home at the end of the school day. The strategies typically include strict discipline, extra time in school, drilling in math and English, and accountability for teachers and principals, usually based on testing. Administrators adopt a rigid set of rules and punishments. A top-down lecturing style is followed in the classroom.

At Simon Gratz, students began raising their hands in class, tucking in their shirts, and racking up demerits and detentions for the smallest infractions.

The new administrators also dismantled the metal detectors guarding the entrance of the building. The idea was to make it seem more like a scholarly institution and less like a prison. But in this case students and parents balked. They didn’t feel safe without the detectors, security guards, and bag checks. The school, nevertheless, came off the state’s “persistently dangerous” list as the hallways calmed down and fewer fights broke out.

Teachers drilled students in note-taking strategies and the standards they had to master. Test scores rose at first. But then they stalled. Gratz still wasn’t the friendly, dynamic place Mastery administrators had imagined.

The high expectations and rigid rules weren’t enough to erase the trauma that has scarred many kids. In the years after Mastery took over Gratz, one student witnessed her father shoot and kill her mother. Another saw his uncle shot in the head and had to drag his best friend’s body to a police car after he was gunned down in the street. An honors student was hit by a stray bullet and died. Another student accidentally shot himself.
Related: How to educate traumatized students

Gordon worried that Mastery was in danger of confirming what many critics often charge about charter schools: That while many of them may do a good job of preparing kids to do well on standardized tests and get into college, their students founder once they arrive on campus. That the mostly white leaders of urban charter networks are, at best, out of touch with the mostly black and Hispanic communities they serve, or, at worst, guilty of a paternalistic racism that undermines their mission of uplift.

“A mistake that we made was the assumption that schools were not successful because they weren’t well run, or they weren’t well organized, or that teachers weren’t trained and supported.”

Gordon was ready to make a change. “We were frustrated that we couldn’t break through,” he says. “We got feedback from our graduates that the … support structure that we had created for students – ‘kids will not fail’ – was not serving them once they got into the real world. The real world was not as supportive. They had to really develop the independence to manage themselves.”

Gordon tinkered with parts of the model, but after struggling to get it right, he decided to start over.

Mastery administrators introduced a new curriculum, new teaching methods, and a new disciplinary system. They hired more social workers and brought in more assistance from community organizations that help kids deal with trauma. They made training in racism and “cultural context” mandatory for all of Mastery’s teachers and administrators, across every school in the city.

“Often you see people who are really bold as those who might not listen,” says Kathy Hamel, a partner at the Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit that supports Mastery. “But [Gordon] is a very good listener, and he’s learned to listen and adapt.”

Mastery administrators decided that to serve their students best, they should make sure all had the option to go to college, but not insist on it. They began developing programs to support students headed into the military or to technical programs and immediate jobs. Even the charter network’s motto – “Excellence. No Excuses.” – is under review.

“We still believe there are no excuses for this country not to be able to provide a great education for every kid,” Gordon says. “There is no excuse; every child can learn and be successful. But I’m not sure it speaks to the soul of Mastery right now. That’s part of our job: to prepare our kids for the real world, and to recognize that there’s great promise in the world. It’s also a broken world.”


What do you think?