Karen Heller: An Academic Turnaround

Dean of students Tony Anderson talks with Kevin Beaford, 18, a Gates Millennium Scholar, at Mastery Thomas Charter School.
Dean of students Tony Anderson talks with Kevin Beaford, 18, a Gates Millennium Scholar, at Mastery Thomas Charter School. (APRIL SAUL /Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 17, 2013

Seeking a respite from the relentless drumbeat of dire city school news, I headed to far South Philadelphia, in the shadow of the stadiums.

Thomas was a lousy neighborhood school, an institution of last resort, when Mastery Charter took control for its first turnaround project eight years ago. Today, Thomas is a gem, ranked the state's fourth-best charter high school, with a waiting list of nearly a thousand students.

Reading scores have tripled, and math more than doubled. The school, now grades seven through 12, has 619 students. Members of the class of 2013, all 56 who graduate Thursday, were accepted to postsecondary programs, the majority to four-year colleges.

Then there's senior Kevin Beaford, Thomas' rock star. Younger students yearn to be "the next Kevin," not for his sports acumen - though he was captain of the basketball team - but for winning a national Gates Millennium Scholarship, which will pay for his education at the University of Pennsylvania and beyond. He's hoping Wharton.

Sitting in the dining hall festooned with college pennants, Kevin tells me, "I think Mastery made me who I am."

Mastery receives foundation grants and private donations for building improvements, but once a school opens, it employs remarkable economy and delivers a strong education for around $8,000 per student. (Though far more for special-education pupils.) Using a required formula, that's 72 percent of what the Philadelphia School District spends.

Thomas' success can be credited largely to the secret of all good schools: talented, dedicated teachers who tend to stay. They emphasize critical thinking and personal responsibility for scholastic achievement. "We put a bar in place," said geometry teacher Nikki Thiemann, "and if the kids are not getting there, we figure out how we need to get them there. That's why teachers are here until 6 p.m."

Homework averages 45 minutes per subject. "We eat lunch with the students so they feel comfortable bringing up every small issue," said calculus teacher James Stundon. There is strong code of merits and demerits to enforce successful behavior.

It cannot hurt that so many teachers are young, energetic, and invested in their students' achievements, responding to parents' e-mails at dawn. Principal Kristy Fruit, with a small stud in her nose, is 34, part of a core group that has been at Thomas from the launch. Said parent Christi Jackson: "This is a calling for these teachers. It's not a job." The salaries, tied to achievement, range from $45,000 to $85,000, competitive with the School District.

Parent Tanya Pezanowski worked at Thomas before the turnaround. "It was all gloom and doom. The school has come such a long way." Her son, Alex, too. He's on the honor roll, and has never missed a day of class.

In the early years, Mastery emphasized teaching to the tests. I remember visiting the Pickett campus and seeing the sterile hallways wallpapered with scores, which must have been brutal for struggling students. It felt clinical.

Thomas, now one of a dozen Mastery campuses, is more cheerful. There are still too many achievement rankings and mass-produced inspirational quotes, not enough celebrations of creative endeavors. Fruit hopes to increase literacy by selecting more accessible texts. Everyone agrees parental involvement is not strong enough. And though Thomas celebrates its diversity - 60 percent black, 17 percent Asian - the 14 percent white and 5 percent Hispanic enrollments suggest those neighborhood families prefer other options.

"Students may be getting into college but they're not staying in college," Fruit told me. "So we want to develop nonacademic skills. They may not have bought into leadership. We want to show them they can't just be book smart."

Tenth graders pursue a rigorous internship, which they must summarize with a 28-slide public PowerPoint presentation. Teachers identify leaders to be in mentoring groups. The student council is empowered to plan school activities.

Mastery continues to grow, enjoying successes large and subtle. In the fall, its Thomas Elementary will open around the corner, a feeder school that will provide a K-through-12 neighborhood experience. Long after classes adjourned on an idyllic sunny day, in the waning days of the academic year, some Thomas students were still gathered at the corner of Ninth and Johnston, laughing.


Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or follow @kheller on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

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