Oprah Winfrey announces $1 million grant for Mastery Charter Schools

Cheering Mastery's $1 million grant are staffers (center row, from left) Catherine Brand, Kim Crandall, April Thomas, Sharif El-Maki, and Krissy Kim. The group gathered at a Chili's to watch the broadcast.
Cheering Mastery's $1 million grant are staffers (center row, from left) Catherine Brand, Kim Crandall, April Thomas, Sharif El-Maki, and Krissy Kim. The group gathered at a Chili's to watch the broadcast.
Posted: September 21, 2010

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has praised Philadelphia's Mastery Charter Schools for turning around once-troubled district schools.

President Obama has given the nonprofit a shout-out for dramatically boosting test scores and curbing school violence.

What could top that?

Oprah.

And what could beat even that?

One million bucks.

On her show's Monday broadcast, the TV diva recognized Mastery for outstanding work in educating Philadelphia students, then announced a $1 million grant.

Taped Sept. 9 in Chicago, the show focused on school reform and the new education documentary Waiting for "Superman" by Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth. Six charter networks from across the country were featured, and each received $1 million from the Angel Network, a philanthropy that Oprah Winfrey founded in 1997 with contributions from viewers.

Scott Gordon, Mastery's founder and chief executive, flew to Chicago for the taping with two Mastery principals. The money, he said, will be used to expand Mastery's presence in Philadelphia.

Mastery opened its first charter high school with a college-prep focus in 2001 in Center City. Since then, the Philadelphia School District has given Mastery six troubled schools to convert into charters, using a model that combines a rigorous curriculum with the development of interpersonal skills.

The school day and year are longer than in regular district schools. Tutoring and Saturday sessions are required for those who struggle. All students must show "mastery" by earning a grade of at least 76 percent before advancing.

Winfrey handed out large mock checks to the startled school representatives and called them "the real-life superheroes of education."

"It was a thrill to be a part of this, but I feel even better that this issue is brought to the attention of the nation in a way folks can relate to," Gordon said Monday. "If Mastery can do it with 4,000 children, the question that needs to be asked is, 'Why not every child?' "

Because most of Mastery's seven schools lack cable service and have poor TV reception, after-school programs were canceled Monday so teachers could attend viewing parties. Students had time to get home for the 4 p.m. show.

Gordon watched it at the Chili's restaurant on City Avenue with 50 jubilant staff members from Mastery's Shoemaker campus in West Philadelphia.

The brief segment on Mastery included video shot by one of Winfrey's producers during visits to Shoemaker and Mastery's Pickett campus in Germantown this month.

Gordon, who appeared on the show with Pickett principal Kelli Seaton, learned of the grant only at the end of the taping.

"They completely surprised us with the $1 million check," he said.

As part of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's Imagine 2014 initiative, Mastery is converting three low-performing elementary schools into charters this academic year.

Gordon said Mastery hoped to be chosen to take over even more district schools and would use the grant to help cover start-up costs. Mastery spends about $1.5 million in private funds for each new school, he said.

Winfrey told viewers Monday that the $1 million grants to the six charter networks would be the last handed out by the Angel Network, which raised $80 million in the last decade.


Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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