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MaST: A high-tech Philly charter school in high demand

Second graders at MaST Community Charter School, on Byberry Road in the Northeast, gather around the floor projector in the Media Center to look at their school using Google Earth.
Second graders at MaST Community Charter School, on Byberry Road in the Northeast, gather around the floor projector in the Media Center to look at their school using Google Earth.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Perched in a corner of the Far Northeast, Math, Science and Technology Community Charter School has been popular since it opened in 1999.

But MaST, as it is known, has become one of the hardest schools to get into in the region. Applicants have a better chance at Harvard.

The K-12 charter received nearly 9,200 applications from across the city for just 96 seats in the fall. That translates to a 1 percent chance; Harvard admitted 5.4 percent of 39,041 applicants in 2016.

MaST recently held a lottery to determine who would win a golden ticket for a seat in September.

What's behind MaST's draw? Is it the state and national accolades, such as being recognized by Apple for innovation, leadership, and educational excellence three years running? The fact that about 90 percent of grads go to college? The focus on technology and the arts? The 3-D printers and robotics labs?

Could it be the virtual Wii fitness center, the video studio, or the three-story media and library wing with a projection screen in the floor? Or, are parents lured by the school's rooftop telescope?

"I don't know all the reasons," CEO John Swoyer 3d said. "I've heard different things: Catholic schools closing and the closings of other charters. But our numbers have gone up every year."

Parents are grateful for the facilities, academics, and safety offered at MaST. But many said the primary attractions are the stable, caring teaching staff; the multitude of extracurricular activities; and a sense of community that binds students and families through high school.

"It's like having a child in a private school almost," said Phillip Sokol of Northeast Philadelphia, whose son, Lawrence, 17, a junior, entered kindergarten at the school in 2005.

Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, is not surprised that MaST receives thousands of applications.

"I think it jibes with everything we know about education in Philadelphia," he said. "Families are eager to find the best schools possible. MaST is running one of the best schools in the city."

Gleason, whose organization works to expand the number of seats in high-performing schools, said that although "school choice" recently has become a hotly debated term, "it's part of the everyday ecosystem in Philadelphia."

Philadelphia's 86 charter schools enroll nearly 65,000 students, and most have waiting lists. Critics contend that charters drain needed resources from traditional public schools. The district's $2.8 billion budget includes $875 million for charters, including transportation.

Under a formula outlined in state law, the district pays charters $8,487 a student, and $25,624 for each in special education.

If a charter receives more applications than it has space, state law requires a lottery to fill openings. While the selection process at some charters is shrouded in mystery, MaST has drawn students' names in public for years. Those not chosen are put on a waiting list that is created each year.

Lottery night at MaST is filled with trepidation followed by elation, disappointment, and frustration.

Sokol, who is a member of the Association of MaST Parents, helped with traffic control at the 2016 event. He stood in the back of a packed room and watched as 99 students were picked from more than 8,000 applicants.

"The school has this wonderful reputation — and rightfully so," Sokol said. "There was certainly some heartbreak."

Susan Galloza of Wissinoming remembers when the name of her son Zach, now a senior, was drawn for a kindergarten spot in 2004.

She doesn't recall how many children applied. But because MaST gives a preference to siblings,  there were only a few kindergarten openings that year.

"It was either seven or 13," Galloza said. "We literally won the lottery."

She was equally thrilled when son Jeremy, 16, was admitted to kindergarten two years later. He did so well that he was allowed to skip a grade in elementary school and is now a junior.

Galloza said Zach, 17, will study theater arts and English at West Chester University in the fall.

When her sons applied, she said, names written on the backs of business cards were pulled from a pretzel jar.

Now, applications are submitted electronically, and names are selected through a website that uses a randomized algorithm.

"We don't touch it," Swoyer said, "and we put it up on the screen so everybody can see it."

Some parents whose children were not picked last month complained on MaST's Facebook page that the lottery process was "very unfair."

Swoyer understands the frustration but noted that the district has capped city enrollment at 1,250. "If we had more seats for people to apply, their chances would be a lot better," he said.

A district spokesman said that the size of MaST's applicant pool has never been verified by the district or its Charter Schools Office.

MaST focuses on science, technology, robotics, engineering, arts, and math and is one of the higher-performing charters in the city. It was ranked 10th overall out of 83 schools in the city by the district's School Progress Report in January.

The charter operates out of a renovated, expanded former steel plant at 1800 E. Byberry Rd. Facility improvements, including the media center and a parking garage for the cramped 4.5-acre campus, were financed largely through the sale of tax-exempt bonds.

Based on demand and MaST's academic success, the School Reform Commission approved a second school in 2015.

MaST II opened as a K-3 school in the fall with 395 students in rented, renovated space at the former St. William Catholic school on Rising Sun Avenue in the Lower Northeast. The school will add grades each year with the hope of becoming K-12 in seven years.

The Philadelphia School Partnership gave a $1.9 million grant to help with start-up costs. Gleason said the partnership backed MaST II in part because a Lower Northeast site would be more accessible to families in other parts of the city.

Swoyer said MaST is planning a new permanent home for MaST II at the former Dodge Steel site on New State Road in Tacony that should be ready in 2018-19.

The land was purchased by a nonprofit that was formed to support MaST. Swoyer said plans call for developing athletic fields and an environmental education area that students from both schools can use.

MaST also has been trying to open a K-12 charter in Bucks County. The state Charter Appeal Board approved the school after Neshaminy denied the application.

Saying that MaST had not demonstrated support for a program in Bucks, Neshaminy appealed, and the case is now before the state Supreme Court.