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Philly's coolest charter school is high-tech heaven

MaST Charter's president says, "I feel like I'm in 'Star Trek.' "

Cecily Sanders, 11th grade, demonstrates the telescope with Anthony Chu, 10th grade, on the roof of the MaST Charter School in Northeast Philadelphia on April 22, 2014. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )
Cecily Sanders, 11th grade, demonstrates the telescope with Anthony Chu, 10th grade, on the roof of the MaST Charter School in Northeast Philadelphia on April 22, 2014. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )Read more

THE COOLEST SCHOOL in Philadelphia has a golden telescope on the roof, where everyone from kindergarten through 12th grade can watch explosions on the surface of the sun.

Inside, all 1,327 students work on iPads and computers, and exercise in an all-Wii gym with Wii Fitness, Wii Sports and "Dance Dance Revolution."

Students choose a favorite TV show or movie scene, re-enact it, film it, then edit it in the video lab.

Others design sneakers or model airplanes on their computers, then physically build them in a 3-D printer.

Instead of a traditional library, there is a computer-jammed media center that has the electric feel of an Apple Store when the newest iPhone debuts.

All of which explains why there is a waiting list of more than 5,000 students hoping to get into MaST (Math and Science Technology) Community Charter School on Byberry Road near Worthington, in Somerton.

And why, despite its unselective enrollment randomly generated by computer, MaST Charter's academic achievement ranked in the same top tier as the city's highly selective Masterman High School on the latest Pennsylvania Department of Education scorecard.

"I was shocked when I came here in fifth grade and saw that this school was miles ahead of everything I'd ever done in my old school," MaST senior Nick Mazuchowski said. "If I hadn't come here, I never would have known there was this world of integrating technology and making videos."

Mazuchowski, who will attend Drexel University, said he "fell in love with film" in the seventh grade while doing MaST video projects and streaming them on YouTube. "I said, 'Wow! This is what I want to do with my life,' " he said.

He directs a 30-student crew of writers, camera operators and audio technicians who produce the morning news show in MaST's high-def TV studio.

"There was no TV station at my old school," Mazuchowski said. "I never would have had all these opportunities if I hadn't come here."

Breanna Behr, a senior who has attended MaST since kindergarten, took her first robotics class last fall, hated it, then suddenly got hooked.

"We had to make and program a robot that sprayed pesticides on plants," she said. "At first, it was like gibberish to me. I didn't want to be there.

"The teacher worked one-on-one with me until I realized, I can build this thing myself. I can make it work. I can tell it, 'I need you to do this,' and it will do it. Robotics is great. I plan to go to Widener University for engineering."

The amazing thing is that futuristic, reach-for-the-stars MaST Charter was born in the mind of Karen DelGuercio during her 30 years as a traditional history teacher and administrator at Strawberry Mansion and Lincoln high schools.

There was no hint of the starship MaST would become when it opened in 1999 as a grade school that was forced to hold classes in a church and three synagogues while DelGuercio wandered in the real-estate wilderness, searching for a home.

"We were thrown out of the best industrial parks in Northeast Philadelphia," she said, laughing. "I guess they didn't want kids."

She finally found temporary housing in the Academy Plaza Shopping Center and added 500 students, seventh through 11th grades, plus just two graduating seniors, who transferred from other schools.

DelGuercio remembered one of them asking her, "Why don't we just go down to Acme, and you can graduate us from the express line?"

MaST finally found a home in a former Somerton steel fabricating plant, where DelGuercio avoided the legal pitfalls that befell some other charter school founders when she decided to be the unpaid board president rather than the salaried CEO.

"I've been volunteering all these years," she said. "A board member likes to calculate how much I've lost in salary. I just ignore him."

DelGuercio got a $15 million bond that bankrolled MaST Charter's morphing into high-tech heaven, while school district funding pays operating expenses.

DelGuercio knew she was no techie, so she hired one from the start - John Swoyer, who was 22 when he arrived 10 years ago to put the "T" in MaST.

At the time, he said, the "T" consisted of one computer in every classroom. He grew that into a computer for every student.

"I'm the guy with all the crazy ideas," said Swoyer, who was the guiding spirit behind the high-def TV studio where, he said, "Students have done everything from interviewing District Attorney Seth Williams to producing their own 'Shark Tank.' "

Swoyer envisioned the computer-rich media center and the Wii gym, and fully supported his cyberspace fellow-traveler Thomas Ullom's 3-D design-technology strategy for life.

"John understands that our kids need to be competitive but in a very safe way," Ullom said, "where they can attempt something and fail without fear.

"I remember watching a nature show where tiger cubs were tumbling around, fighting each other in mock battle," he said. "They were honing their skills to be aggressive hunters, getting a sense of who they were and yet, they weren't getting hurt.'"

That, Ullom said, is what Swoyer allows him to do in 3-D design, where students create sneakers or model planes on the computer, and turn them into reality in the ovenlike 3-D printer, which physically builds them.

Then, the products are tested. If they don't work, it's back to the computerized drawing board.

It's critical thinking with the wow factor of Air Jordans.

"Only one or two kids a year become product designers," Ullom said. "But huge numbers could become business people, doctors, lawyers."

DelGuercio said, "For someone like me who thought those big portable phones in the '70s were a big deal, bringing John and Tom here was like opening the door and letting fresh air come in.

"The other day, John gave me a pair of Google Glasses," she said. "I put them on and said, 'What is this?' He kept saying, 'Wink! Wink!' I said, 'Wink about what?' He said, 'Wink means you can take a picture.' "

DelGuercio laughed. "They do keep you young," she said. "I feel like I'm in 'Star Trek' half the time."

MaST parents are in concerned-parent paradise.

John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, whose two daughters have attended MaST Charter for six years, said one of his girls "was struggling and borderline failing in Catholic school" before transferring.

"I had her in tutoring all over the city," McNesby said. "I had private tutors come in. And she just wasn't getting it. My wife and I were pulling our hair out."

When his daughter got into MaST Charter, McNesby said, "her whole attitude went from not wanting to pick up a book to really wanting to go to school. Now, we're talking about college."

McNesby credits MaST Charter's small classes, one-on-one interactions and total immersion in high-tech learning.

"The days of copy books and pencils and stuff are gone," McNesby said. "Now you're doing everything on a smartphone and an iPad. Some of the technology in there, I never even knew existed. They're always thinking five years ahead. They're way beyond state of the art."