On the first stop on a nationwide "Listening and Learning Tour," the Rev. Al Sharpton said yesterday that he was leaving Philadelphia "very hopeful" after seeing two schools where adults were working hard to help students achieve.
"I am really inspired," Sharpton told reporters at a news conference at the McDaniel Elementary School, on 22nd Street near McClellan, in South Philadelphia.
Earlier, Sharpton joined U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, for a visit to the Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker campus at 53rd and Media streets, in West Philadelphia.
Mastery officials said that the Shoemaker school had been "previously the second most violent school" in the Philadelphia School District before it was converted to a Mastery Charter school in fall 2006.
But, the visitors learned yesterday, Mastery students' proficiency rate on statewide achievement tests jumped from 31 percent in 2006 to 87 percent in 2009.
The school's eight-graders outperformed affluent suburban schools in math, said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon.
Sharpton took note of that achievement.
"To see a group of students who are the same students, from the same neighborhood, going into the same school building; nothing about their socioeconomic status changed, but by giving them a new discipline, new rules, new teachers who care about them and to see their test scores jump, that's just shows us that we can make a difference," Sharpton said.
"If we take what this school is doing right and nationalize it, then that will give us a win as a nation."
At both schools yesterday, Duncan and Sharpton repeatedly called the need to provide low-income children with the same educational opportunities as affluent children "the new civil-rights issue" for this generation.
And Gingrich said that improving education for all children in the country is "a matter of national security."
"If our kids don't keep up with China and India, especially in math and science, it's a threat to our national security," he said.
Duncan was asked if President Obama, who has suggested lengthening the school day and school year, will have the money to pay teachers for the extra time.
"It's whatever works," Duncan said. He said that it wouldn't be easy, but he pointed out that some Mastery students, who had performed so well on state tests, attend class for longer than district schools and go to school on Saturdays and during the summer.
Duncan and the others said that American school schedules are based on the agrarian culture of the 19th century, when students were needed to work on farms during the summer.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said that the McDaniel School is "a school with a lot of challenges" and came very close to making what is called "adequate yearly progress" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
She said that it is a school where the teachers and principal are working hard "and they're making great progress."
Earlier yesterday, a Mastery Shoemaker student agreed with President Obama about the need for a longer school day.
"If he says we need to be in school longer, then we need it," said Khalil Harris, a 16-year-old junior.
Harris was part of a group of about 20 juniors - members of what will be the first class to graduate from Mastery Shoemaker next year - who spent time talking with Duncan, Sharpton and Gingrich.
One student told the visitors that when she attended the old Shoemaker, when it was a regular public school, she heard a teacher tell students, "I have my education. I will get paid anyway."
She said that that attitude sent a message that teachers didn't really care if students learned or not.
The teenagers said that they have a better relationship with the teachers and staff now that it's a Mastery charter.
Aja Waters, also an 11th-grader, said that the advice she got from a ninth-grade teacher, Nadirah Sulayman, helped her get on track to become a better student.
"She told me that your life doesn't start tomorrow," Waters said, "it starts today."
Duncan, Gingrich and Sharpton plan to continue the "tour" in New Orleans on Nov. 3 and in Baltimore on Nov. 13.