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Turnaround charter getting high marks for college prep

As Mastery Charter School at Thomas prepares for its first graduation next month, good news is pouring in to its South Philadelphia campus.

From South Philly to the Ivies: Mastery's Salma Zeb will attend the University of Pennsylvania, while Keenan Burton-Sessons is bound for Columbia University.
From South Philly to the Ivies: Mastery's Salma Zeb will attend the University of Pennsylvania, while Keenan Burton-Sessons is bound for Columbia University.Read more

As Mastery Charter School at Thomas prepares for its first graduation next month, good news is pouring in to its South Philadelphia campus.

In a neighborhood where district high schools send 16 to 24 percent of their graduates to college, 93 percent of Thomas' seniors will attend.

It has been only five years since Mastery took on Thomas and became the first operator in the city to convert a troubled middle school into a charter. Yet Thomas was one of 22 charter schools nationwide lauded this spring by a New York educational-reform group for achieving dramatic academic gains with low-income students.

What's especially sweet for Mastery is that this year, for the first time in its nine-year history, Mastery students have cracked the Ivy League ceiling. One Mastery-Thomas grad will attend the University of Pennsylvania; another is bound for Columbia University.

"I'm thrilled," said Scott Gordon, Mastery's founder and chief executive officer, who recalled nervously handing hoagies to students at lunch on Mastery-Thomas' opening day in 2005.

"I remember how scared we were," the businessman-turned-educator said. "This was our first turnaround. It was a big deal."

Mastery is on the cusp of another milestone. In the fall, the charter organization will take over three elementary schools and for the first time will be able to educate children from the primary grades through high school.

It's the realization of a dream for Mastery, which opened its first charter in 2001 as a high school.

Mastery's success with the high school, a demanding college-prep model, led the Philadelphia School District's then-chief executive, Paul Vallas, and the School Reform Commission to ask Mastery to take on Thomas.

The next year Mastery tackled Shoemaker, a troubled middle school in West Philadelphia, and in 2007 took charge of Pickett, in Germantown.

Mastery has followed the approach it pioneered at Thomas: It turns middle schools into charters and adds a grade each year to reach 12. All four Mastery charters meet the academic standards of the federal No Child Left Behind Law and have for nearly every year they have existed.

Ten days ago, the SRC selected Mastery as one of six nonprofits that will take over low-performing district schools as part of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's Imagine 2014 initiative. Slated for conversion to Mastery charters are Harrity, Mann, and Smedley.

As charter conversions, the schools continue to enroll students from the neighborhood instead of drawing them from across the city, as most charter schools do.

When Mastery embarked on its turnaround at Thomas, staff members were not the only ones who were apprehensive. Students who had been seventh graders at Thomas Middle School were not sure what to expect that first day as they approached the building at 927 Johnston St. to begin eighth grade at Mastery-Thomas.

"At first I was nervous," said Keenan Burton-Sessons, 18. But then he noticed that once-dirty hallways were clean and that walls that had been scarred by graffiti in the spring were painted in bright, engaging colors.

"I thought, 'Oh, man. What is this?' "

Salma Zeb, 18, who had a string of substitute teachers for science and social studies for most of seventh grade, wasn't sure whether Mastery's changes went beyond the cosmetic.

"I expected disappointment because Thomas had disappointed me since the sixth grade," she said. "When I walked in, there were teachers standing there, shaking hands. It seemed like the atmosphere was so different, but I was still cynical. I had to give it time."

She and several classmates quickly decided the changes were genuine: Teachers had high expectations. Instruction continued after school and on Saturdays. Bad behavior was not tolerated. Students were expected to attend college. And at Thomas, where many seniors will be the first in their families to go, staff helped them navigate the maze of college applications.

Islam Hafairi, who will study aerospace engineering on the main campus of Pennsylvania State University, remembers sitting in the auditorium the first day, listening to the principal talk about all the changes.

"He was telling us what would be different," Hafairi said. "That's when most of us realized this wouldn't be like Thomas. We were here to learn, and we went on from there."

Mastery methodically moved students through their academic subjects; introduced Advanced Placement courses, including calculus, biology, and literature; required juniors to complete internships; and provided nurturing and support.

"It was like a new world, basically," Zeb said.

"The same students who you saw in Thomas fighting every day - here, you don't see them fight at all," said Burton-Sessons, who nailed a perfect math score on his SATs and will attend Columbia on a full scholarship.

"I think what changed and made the students change is they got respect from teachers," he said. "They thought their teachers cared."

That sense of caring, Burton-Sessons said, helped students believe they could succeed. "They have something to look forward to. They have a goal."

Zeb, who received a hefty financial-aid package to attend Penn, agreed.

"I think people really have changed their attitudes and their outlook on life," she said. "Basically, they could see they've been given another chance and should take advantage of it."

Statistics show that's what has happened with the 87 members of the Class of 2010 who will graduate June 18. Not only are 80 registered for college, but nearly two-thirds will attend four-year schools, including Ursinus, Ithaca, Penn State, Temple, and La Salle.

College adviser Debi Durso said the remaining seven seniors planned to attend two-year schools. Six are taking placement tests at Community College of Philadelphia; one plans to enroll at Camden County College in January.

"I have known these kids since eighth grade," said Durso, who taught them English, shepherded them on campus tours, visited their homes, and helped their families fill out financial-aid forms.

"We talked about college when they walked in the door in eighth grade," she said. "As we have gone through the years, I was 98 percent sure they were all going on to college."

Durso, a former district teacher, said: "I feel like we raised them. We showed them there's more out there. But it comes down to them - the determination and passion. . . . They're great kids."

But Debbie Elliott, whose daughter, Courtney, will attend La Salle in the fall, called Mastery-Thomas a "great school" and said she believed it deserved plenty of credit for the students' success.

"Courtney was always a good student, but I think Mastery Charter really helped her," Elliott said. "She's dedicated and really matured here. I couldn't see her anywhere else."