SHORTLY AFTER the newly created School Reform Commission was sworn in to assume control of the struggling city school district in early 2002, the Daily News began to receive word about a West Philadelphia charter school that had big problems of its own.
It wasn't just any charter school, and it wasn't just struggling.
It was the Renaissance Advantage Charter School - founded by state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams - and the school was falling apart, according to teachers and parents who spoke to the paper for a March 11, 2002, article.
They cited low student test scores; a lack of resources, including textbooks and weak leadership from board president Williams; and a revolving door of principals.
"If the [School Reform Commission] gets wind of what's going on here, this school will be shut down," Naeemah Felder, a mother of two students, said at the time. "Test scores aren't right, teachers are disappearing, we're upset.
"Truly and honestly, I don't really have too many good things to say about this school now because they have not held up their end of the bargain," she added. "My kids might as well be in a regular public school."
Nine years later, in 2011, the board announced it was handing the school over to the Mastery Charter School network, which specializes in turning around failing public schools.
Williams, a candidate for mayor who has made a name for himself and reaped millions in campaign cash as a staunch backer of education reforms - like charter schools - may now be asked to explain on the campaign trail why the results of his charter experiment were less than stellar.
Randall Miller, a history professor at St. Joseph's University and local political analyst, said there are two ways to view Williams' foray as a charter-school founder: either as an experiment that yielded important lessons, or simply as another failed charter. He said it will probably be an easy attack ad for Williams' opponents.
"That is his strength and that is his weakness," Miller said of the education issue. "No candidate is going to be able to run away from it . . . and some candidates are going to be branded by it. And he's one."
Not a run for principal
Williams, 58, helped found the Renaissance Advantage Charter School in 1999 and served as board chairman until 2009. He left the board in 2011.
During those years, academic achievement was generally poor, the SRC attempted to shut down the charter, a succession of principals and teachers came and went and the school's name was changed to the Hardy Williams Academy Charter School, in honor of Williams' late father.
In March 2011, Dawn Chavous, a close adviser to Williams who replaced him as board chair in 2009, announced the school was being turned over to Mastery.
Operating as the Hardy Williams Academy Mastery Charter School, the learning environment has steadily improved, teachers and parents told the Daily News recently.
The improvements have taken place without the purging of teachers and students, the overwhelming majority of whom stayed when Mastery took control, said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon.
Chavous, who is now Williams' campaign manager, said the performance of the school while under his wing should not cast a negative light on the mayoral candidate.
"He's not running to be the principal, he's not running to be the superintendent," she said.
"One of the things that I thought was very insightful was the fact that he had the ability to recognize what he could do and where he needed to engage other people who had significant expertise in areas that he didn't in order to create partnerships," Chavous said.
"If he approaches issues that way as it relates to fixing the problems that exist now in the city, that speaks very strongly to how he governs. It's not about him doing everything. It's being a consensus builder, it's about working with other people to find solutions and not thinking that you can do everything on your own."
Williams was not available for comment, spokesman Albert Butler said. Meanwhile, despite Chavous' positive spin, the longtime politician has tried to distance himself from the school, recently removing any reference to it from his campaign website.
Veronica Joyner, founder of the parent advocacy group Parents United for Better Schools and founder and chief administrative officer of the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School, on Broad Street near Buttonwood, said that although Williams may not be an educator, he showed leadership by finding professionals to run the school instead of shutting it down.
"The fact that he gave the school up, I would identify that as a mother giving her baby up if she thought her baby would have a better life and a better environment," said Joyner, whose charter school opened 16 years ago.
"That's about the best decision you can make," she added.
Gordon, whose Mastery network manages 12 schools in Philadelphia, spoke highly of Williams and characterized his company's acquisition of his school as a "partnership" rather than a takeover.
"I believe Senator Williams' support of the Hardy Williams board's decision to partner with Mastery showed true leadership and courage," Gordon said in an emailed statement sent several hours after being interviewed at the Kingsessing school for this article. "It demonstrated that Senator Williams is not willing to accept the status quo when it comes to kids - but instead he has the courage to partner, innovate, and do whatever it takes to ensure every Philadelphia child gets an excellent education."
During the years as the Hardy Williams Academy, the charter often failed to meet annual benchmarks for yearly progress as defined by the state Department of Education, and its standardized test scores often ranked among the lowest in Pennsylvania.
In 2009-10, 47 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in math and 44 percent scored proficient or advanced in reading on the state's standardized exam.
In 2010-11, 58 percent of students scored proficient or above in math and 50 percent in reading.
During the first year under Mastery, in 2011-12, 71 percent of students were on target in math while 54 percent were in reading. Those percentages dipped slightly over the past two years, mirroring a similar trend across the state because of an increase in the difficulty level of the test, Gordon said.
New manager, building
Averyel Sawyer, who was a technology teacher before Mastery came in, is now an assistant principal and director of operations at the school.
Before Mastery, he said, substantial leadership turnover was common. He recalled that the principal who hired him lasted about three months. Such upheaval is a thing of the past, Sawyer said.
"When we were the old Hardy Williams . . . when things didn't work immediately, they scrapped it and jumped to other things," Sawyer said. "Sometimes you need to stay the course.
"With Mastery, you know they're going to be there, so you know they'll stay the course. That's good for the kids, as well."
In addition, Sawyer said Mastery has pumped in extra resources, including more professional development and money to upgrade facilities.
Last year, Mastery bought the old Shaw Middle School building on Warrington Avenue near 54th Street from the school district and moved the Hardy Williams school there in January. Construction workers are now expanding the building.
The school enrolls 1,070 kindergartners through 10th-graders and will expand to 12th grade during the next few years, officials said.
A waiting list of 620 children hoping to get in is an indication the school is working, parents said.
"I think if you ask a lot of our parents, they're happier now than they were before," Sawyer said.
A handful of parents whose children started at the school under Williams' organization and remain today said Williams created a school that fostered a family environment and Mastery has continued that and brought in tangible additional resources that have made the school better.
"My son has benefited a lot from the partnership with Mastery because there's more resources as far as special education is concerned. My child is in a special-education program, so now I feel like there is even more support for him," said Zakiya Cherif, whose son is in sixth grade.
"I think they had a lot more to offer to elevate us to the next level," Tyrone Sims, a grandfather of four students, said of Mastery.
"The support team that they have in place already - which was there with the old school - [is] more of a boost for us to continue doing what we're doing now," added Sims, who is vice president of the school's Parent Teacher Organization.
"This school is different in many ways because we have more resources," said Samyra Chandler, who has a daughter in fourth grade and a son in first. "To me, it's just better because Mastery is about student achievement."