‘Persistently dangerous’ schools down in District; Mastery touts Gratz progress

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Briana Jackson said her life changed when Mastery Charter took over Gratz High School a year ago.

The self-described former troublemaker, now a senior, said that the transformation isn’t yet complete; she still gets detentions now and then. But the person who was regularly suspended has turned into a serious student, athlete and student-government member with her sights set on attending Howard University and becoming a nurse.

Jackson is emblematic of a changed school that Mastery officials showed off Wednesday, one that has come off the state’s persistently dangerous list in its first year as a Renaissance turnaround school under the charter organization.

"It’s not perfect yet, but it’s not chaotic," said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon. What it is now, he said, is a community of parents, students, and staff and a popular neighborhod school with a growing enrollment and less student turnover.

As Mastery was touting its accomplishments, the School District announced that just six District schools are on the state’s persistently dangerous list for 2012-13. Last year’s list of 12 Philadelphia schools included Gratz and Audenried High School, both of which were converted to charters a year ago.

In the District, six city high schools — Edison, Fels, Northeast, Sayre, Shaw and South Philadelphia — came off the list. Four remained — Frankford, Kensington Business, Lincoln, and Strawberry Mansion. Two new schools joined the list, Douglas High School and Beeber Middle School.

The designation is "formula-driven," said District spokesman Fernando Gallard. Schools get on the list for violent crimes that lead to arrest, and the threshold is pretty low – 5 incidents for schools with 250 or fewer students; incidents amounting to 2 percent of enrollment for schools between 251 and 1,000 students; and 20 incidents for schools with more than 1,000 students.

The District also said that, overall, the violent crime index, which includes assaults, fires, robberies, abductions, drugs and alcohol, morals and weapons offenses, is down by 4 percent. Incidents went down in all areas except morals and drug offenses.

This is the second year in a row that the number of dangerous schools has declined.

"I think there is a focus here on trying to get to the smaller incidents so they don’t grow into something bigger," Gallard said.

The School Reform Commission recently voted to change the District’s discipline policy to focus more on prevention.

Also coming off the list, Gallard said, was Audenried High School — a District school converted to a charter under Universal Companies and the scene of notorious incidents chronicled in the Inquirer‘s award-winning Assault on Learning series.

Mastery’s Gordon also touted improvement in test scores at Gratz and at their turnaround elementary schools based on 2012 PSSA results.

In two years, proficiency rates at three elementary schools, Mann, Smedley, and Harrity, have gone up an average of 27 percentage points in math and 17 points in reading, while enrollment has gone up and the rate of student withdrawal has gone down.

Mastery-Gratz’s 11th-grade PSSA proficiency rates, which started very low, also went up, to around 20 percent in both subjects, according to the data.

Parents from several schools came to the Wednesday event, held in a Gratz classroom, to praise Mastery.

George Tilghman, the chair of the School Advisory Council at Mastery-Harrity in West Philadelphia, said that when his daughter was in 4th grade, pre-Mastery, he feared for her safety.

"Now the school has a nice vibe to it and you can see progress in learning," he said.

Gratz, unlike Mastery’s other converted District schools, still has metal detectors. It is the first turnaround high school that Mastery has taken on. Its other high schools, Thomas, Pickett, and Shoemaker, started out as middle schools and were gradually converted to 6th-12th grade schools, one grade at a time.

The metal detectors are still there, said Mastery’s Courtney Collins-Shapiro, because parents weren’t quite ready to let them go.

"As we build trust, our goal is to get rid of the detectors," she said.

For Briana Jackson, her time at Gratz didn’t start out well. She got kicked out of orientation. She kept getting demerits. "It was a rough beginning," she said.

But she said the different between Gratz before Mastery and after is having all the adults on the same page in their high expectations, a strict but fair discipline policy, and clear-cut consequences for violations.

"The first thing we did was we told them we believe they are better than what the statistics show," said principal LaQuanda Jackson, no relation to Briana.

But that meant the opposite of cutting students any slack. For instance, students are no longer sent home if they show up out of uniform, but ushered to a room with spare shirts, pants and shoes. And out-of-uniform means having white stripes or laces in black shoes. The room also contains black tape to cover them up.

"It’s about sweating the small stuff," said Collins-Shapiro.

Briana said she finally shaped up when principal Jackson threatened to send her to an in-house disciplinary program.

"That was not for me," she said. "And here I saw that everybody believed in me. Now I stay here until 8 o’clock at night."