By Scott Gordon
In 2010, the School District of Philadelphia announced its Renaissance charter initiative, a bold plan to turn around persistently low-performing schools. The district empowered a number of parent groups to select charter providers for their failing neighborhood schools. Three of those parent groups chose Mastery. The student achievement results from those schools are now in.
In just two years, PSSA scores in math soared an average 26 percentage points and reading scores climbed 17 percentage points. That means 50 percent more children at these schools now score as proficient or advanced in state testing. Even more astonishingly, our students scored above the state average in several grades, outscoring many suburban districts and effectively closing the achievement gap.
As The Inquirer recently reported, there is also great news about Simon Gratz High School, highlighted for its terrible violence in the "Assault on Learning" series. After just one year under Mastery leadership, Gratz is off of the state's "Persistently Dangerous Schools" list. Test scores on the PSSA increased approximately 10 points each in reading and math.
Despite these significant gains, there is still widespread misinformation about Renaissance Charters. Let's set the record straight:
Renaissance serve all children: Renaissance charters are neighborhood public schools open to all students who live in a school's catchment area. The schools serve exactly the same students as before the turnaround - regardless of academic level or special-education need. Critics have assumed that Mastery's results must be because the "bad kids" are kicked out. Wrong. Mastery keeps more neighborhood kids in our Renaissance schools than the district did before the turnaround - the percentage of students who left the schools actually dropped by more than 35 percent.
Renaissance charters are public schools: Mastery is nonprofit. Parents serve on the board. We abide by the same public-school rules. Our budgets and salaries are public. However, there is one major difference between our schools and district schools - we sign an agreement with parents outlining performance goals for their children. If we don't achieve those goals, parents can recommend we lose our charter and, essentially, kick us out. That is true public accountability.
Renaissance charters provide high-quality instruction: Mastery has been recognized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education for its educational model and leadership in teacher development and support. Yet critics still claim the only reason our students achieve is because we "teach to the test." When Lower Merion students do well on state testing, the assumption is not "they're teaching to the test." Why, when our primarily low-income, minority students achieve, should the assumption be otherwise?
Mastery is not taking money away from the district, either. We get the same funding as district schools, minus capital costs and transportation. Renaissance charters use neighborhood school buildings already paid for by taxpayers and serve a specific geographic area, so we minimize the costs the district claims it incurs with traditional charter schools.
Renaissance charters are a choice: Though we are neighborhood schools, parents have a choice as to whether or not to send their children, and are given other local district options. Enrollment at our Renaissance charters is up more than 25 percent - because parents are choosing their neighborhood school again.
More Renaissance charters are needed now: Here is one thing the critics aren't saying: As you read this, about 35,000 children remain trapped in dangerous and low-performing schools throughout the city. Parents want more high-quality schools now and Renaissance Charters are part of the solution. Courageously, the School Reform Commission has said as much. We must work together to expand this initiative so all Philadelphia students can receive the quality education they deserve.