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Three years ago, Simon Gratz High School had the same overwhelming problems that plague Bartram High School today: A building out of control; teachers and students alike fearful for their safety; teaching and learning running a poor second to mayhem.
“Behavior-wise,” recalled Tre-Quan Rowe, 18, now in his senior year at Gratz, “students did whatever they wanted. If they chose to go to class, they went; if not, they didn’t. There was more walking around in the hallways.”
Rowe was in ninth grade during the 2010-2011 school year. “It was hard for me, the environment being the way it was,” he said. “I always did my work. But.…” Rowe would breeze through assignments—“there wasn’t enough work,” he said—then leave class to play basketball in the gym. Nobody stopped him.
Now, the halls of Gratz are quiet when classes are in session. Students get stopped for the most minor of infractions—even a shirttail hanging loose. And Rowe has no time for lolling during the school day. Lessons, he said, “take me the whole period.”
In the spring of 2011, the School District of Philadelphia tapped the hulking school in North Philadelphia for its Renaissance program, which seeks dramatic improvements in low-performing schools.
That summer, Gratz was handed over to Mastery Charter Schools, which by then had become a key go-to operator in turnaround initiatives under both Superintendents Paul Vallas and Arlene Ackerman. By 2011, Mastery was running six neighborhood schools and now has 10, with one more—Edward Steel Elementary—likely to be turned over to Mastery later this year.
By all accounts, Gratz has improved, most visibly in terms of school climate and safety, with steady but less dramatic gains in academics. How Mastery Schools achieved this measure of stability and equilibrium at Gratz is worth examining.
What is it in the way Mastery runs Gratz that is different from traditional district-run schools such as Bartram, Benjamin Franklin, West Philadelphia and other large, neighborhood high schools?
For starters, there is a level playing field with other neighborhood high schools in one aspect. The complaint about charters—that they “skim” the best students—cannot be made about Gratz. It must admit every student in its attendance zone. Most of its students arrive from a long, broad swath of crumbling neighborhoods reaching south to Temple University and north to Nicetown. Nearly all of the teens have attended one of the seven preK-8 schools in the catchment area, some of them run by the District, others by charter management companies.
The high school, a gray-stone neo-gothic building, on the 1700 block of Hunting Park Avenue, first opened in 1925. By 2011, it was troubled enough for the district to hand off the school to Mastery.
When it comes to money, Mastery spends an average of $11,450 per student, higher than a number of neighborhood high schools, but comparable to schools with large populations of special-education students.
“Gratz was pretty dysfunctional and kids were not being well served,” recalled Scott Gordon, Mastery’s CEO. “We worried about violence and how to convince kids to stay in school.”
Compared with district-run schools, Mastery has tremendous leeway: to hire (and fire) teachers, implement curriculum and lay down rules for behavior. The new operators of the school made it clear they intended to establish control.
“From day one we set a high bar for absolutely everything,” said Peter Langer, principal for ninth and 10th grade at Gratz. “We had high expectations for how students speak, how students act and for their schoolwork.”
Mastery insisted that all staff handle issues using the same protocols, the same terms of art. From top to bottom, there is a consistency in message.
“We focus on grit and self control at Gratz,” said Langer. Teachers admonish students using those same terms: You need to show more self control. “We expect every single teacher to hold students to the same expectations, from a shirt being untucked to someone talking rudely. The consequence has to be the same no matter where it happens.”
Langer formerly taught at Stetson Middle School and Birney Elementary, both district schools at the time. He says he has the “utmost respect” for everyone he worked with at the district and for those who still work there.
Still, he adds: “When I think back, it seems that there were islands, pockets of great things happening, but it never seemed that every adult in the building was on the same page. We get every single teacher, dean, administrator to be on the same page.”
Gratz has a slew of administrators—a sharp contrast to the barebones staffing in cash-strapped District schools. There are 23 on the Gratz management team, including two college advisers. Langer has 12 staff members, including several administrators, on what he terms the lower school “culture team.” If he had his druthers, he’d add one more—an assistant principal of school culture for ninth graders, the cohort that needs the closest supervision.
“Even in year three, safety is our number-one priority,” said Langer. For instance, “every adult in the building is in the hallway during transitions… the time when bad things can happen.” Teachers stand in their doorways, ready to step in. “It prevents a bigger thing from happening.”
Some students—even some of their parents—were not at all happy with the new, stricter regime. The first year, 131 students transferred, 129 dropped out and 20 were expelled, according to the annual report submitted to the state. (Two students died that first year; 11 were jailed; 47 were runaways.) The transfer-out rate that first year was 29 percent, six points lower than the previous year. Last year, the rate dropped to 17 percent, according to Mastery.
Some students still leave, Langer acknowledged. But he is heartened that some depart, then re-enroll. That happened three times this year. “They tell us they did not like the structure and all the rules. But then they tell us that [in their next school] ‘I didn’t learn and it was unpleasant.’ ”
The team at Gratz not only demands good behavior, it teaches it.
Ninth and 10th grade students at Gratz take classes in Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) twice a week, learning about self-control, what the term grit might mean in their lives and how to handle conflict. According to Langer, students who need even more support attend a targeted SEL class four times a week. There they practice what to do—and what not to do— when a teacher admonishes them or a peer pesters them.
Those classes were instituted in the fall of 2012, after it became clear that some students lacked basic social skills. “We have seen huge turnarounds in student behavior, with conduct referrals going way down, and positive teacher reports going through the roof,” he said.
The school employs an escalating system of discipline, including calls home, detention or reassignment to the Anthony Wayne Academy, an alternative education program that focuses on social skill building as well as academics in a highly structured setting. The academy is off-site, on Wayne Avenue about two miles from Gratz and operated by Specialized Education Services Inc.
Students typically are assigned to Wayne Academy for a marking period, according to a Mastery spokeswoman. About 100 Gratz students were studying at Wayne in the most recent marking period, with 20 set to return to the main school this month.
This emphasis on appropriate behavior, plus a progressive disciplinary system for those who do not, has had an effect. There were six reportable incidents of violence per 100 students last year, compared with 13 per 100 students in 2010-11, according to Mastery.
Teacher JacQueline Palmer taught at Gratz in its last year as a district-run school and teaches English there still, winning contract renewals one year at a time.
As a district school, “everyone was committed, we really tried, but with Mastery, it’s a whole different environment that enables teachers to shine and allows students to shine,” said Palmer, who teaches Advanced Placement English and an honors class in world literature.
Classes end early on Wednesday afternoons, while teachers spend several hours in professional development and planning sessions.
“I can see a noticeable difference between even one year of not Mastery and having three full years of Mastery [administration],” the teacher said. “I think a consistent set of committed teachers is making a huge difference….”
Some teachers have more issues to deal with, she acknowledged, but “there are definitely clear procedures for teachers to follow to de-escalate situations and really focus on instruction.”
No union protection
For teachers, there is no union protection. The contractual work rules that govern at district-run schools do not apply at Gratz. Teachers can be, and have been, fired midyear, and turnover this past year was an issue, as Mastery reported to its board. Over the summer 20 teachers left and three were fired. Mastery hired another 43 to replace those who departed and to beef up the teaching staff due to increased enrollment. Overall, though, the teacher turnover rate is high: 25 percent.
“The most significant challenge to overcome will be the lack of returning staff members,” the report said, with respect to the lower school. Almost half the school’s 80 teachers were new to the school last August.
An insistence on a “learning environment,” quick and sure disciplinary action to minimize disruption, a strong cadre of committed teachers has had an impact on Gratz.
College enrollment increased from 19 percent pre-Mastery, to 33 percent the next year and 46 percent this past year, according to the data. Gratz enrollment increased from 1,081 in 2011 to 1,276 this past fall. Mastery Prep Middle School opened on site last August, enrolling 107 students in seventh and eighth grades.
Maritza Guridy, president of the school’s parents group, Bulldog Parents United, praised Mastery’s efforts to “create a safe zone” in and around the school.
Rules, demerits, consequences
“They are teaching that there are rules, demerits and consequences,” Guridy said. Before, “the environment was totally chaotic, with fighting, yelling.”
If a parent complains to her about a child being sent home for not being in uniform, she turns the complaint around: Would that parent be allowed to wear pajamas to their workplace? “This is them trying to teach the children to be more responsible.”
An important aspect, she said, is the frequency with which teachers or staff call the parent.
“If a teacher identifies a student struggling, wouldn’t you appreciate hearing about that early on rather than at the end of the reporting period?”
Guridy’s son Elijah Jennings-Guridy, 18, has spent his senior year taking courses at the Community College of Philadelphia, at Mastery’s expense. He’s applied for a scholarship to Millersville University to pursue his career goal of becoming a hiphop artist. The youth is among 11 Gratz students at CCP.
There’s also email communication and online access to student grades, attendance and other matters. A computer at the front desk is available to parents who might not have one at home.
The school also has regained its status as the centerpiece of the neighborhood, with a year-round weekly food pantry; a GED program; the Bulldog Nation alumni association; counseling for STI/STD and HIV prevention; and a program for substance abuse issues.
If Guridy had one wish, it would be for a home economics class, where teenagers could learn the basics of running a household and managing a bank account.
A lack of electives is evident in the course offerings at Gratz. Students get a technology course in ninth grade, music in 10th, an internship their sophomore year and a college prep seminar senior year. Spanish is the only language taught.
Ideally, said Gordon, the CEO, “we want to have more options, more electives, but it’s going to take time. We’re moving in that direction.”
But “we’re not Lower Merion,” said Palmer. “We’re working in a place where students are being asked to make up for a huge deficit in their education previously and to overcome the tremendous issues of poverty.” She would wish for “an additional class that allows students to explore their passion”—music, art, drama. She sees the extracurricular offerings as filling that need in some measure.
“Extracurriculars are extremely important,” said Shayna Terrell, the school’s community engagement manager. Gratz has 20 clubs and 15 to 18 sports teams. For many adults, what happened after the last bell counted the most in their years after school. “That’s where memories were built, where they made lifelong friends, where I learned character, discipline, leadership. For students who are generally disengaged, they will come to school because they are going to an activity after school,” she said.
Tre-Quan Rowe, the 12th grader, said he played football in the fall and was running track this spring. He plans to study civil engineering at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport. Rowe said he wasn’t sure there would be room in the school day for many electives. “I don’t think they would be able to fit it in, there’s no extra time.”
Terron Bacon, 16, is among the students mentioned by Langer as having left, then returning to Gratz. He said he acted out as a freshman and landed in the targeted SEL class “for people to learn better skills in different situations.”
The class helped, he said, “but I was still Terron, a kid who wanted to have fun.” Gratz, he said, “limited some of the things I wanted to do.” So he transferred to a district high school. Bacon let out a long breath and shook his head. “It was rough, really rough. There wasn’t the same passion for learning. Kids didn’t care.… I realized why Gratz has rules. The teachers here care about the students. The students are more engaged in learning. Everyone is a family.”
Photos: Maria Pouchnikova
Reporter Christopher Malo visited Gratz before it was taken over by Mastery to follow the fortunes of the young men who were members of its 2006 basketball team, the last district-run school to win the city basketball championship. He came away with a story of remarkable dedication by coaches and others for the students on the team. The Malo piece was done for Metropolis, an AxisPhilly content partner. It is called The Program.