Mastery ‘restarts’ Philly schools

Taking over a failing school is too challenging for most charter school operators, who prefer to start their own schools from scratch. But Philadelphia’s Mastery Charter Schools is taking the “restart” challenge, according to Benjamin Herold in the Hechinger Report.

Last year, parents were trying to flee Smedley Elementary. The district asked Mastery to take charge. This year, families are asking for the K-5 school to add another grade.

Under the “restart” model, a district outsources management of an existing public school to an outside provider, often a charter-school operator like Mastery. The new management is then expected to overhaul school staff, renovate often-woeful facilities, revamp a dysfunctional school culture, win over disillusioned parents, and dramatically improve student test scores — all while ostensibly serving the same kids as the year before.

Restarts are also controversial and politically sensitive, in part because they involve the use of public money to support privately managed schools. Unionized staff may be supplanted by non-union replacements, just like at charter schools.

Mastery, which uses a “no excuses” model, took over three low-performing  Philadelphia middle schools in 2005.  Scores improved dramatically.

At Pickett Middle School, for example, just 14 percent of students scored proficient in math before Mastery arrived in 2007. After Mastery brought in new teachers and pushed them to work together, almost 70 percent of students scored proficient in math last year—a gain of 500 percent in just three years.

The U.S. Education Department has specified four change models for chronically low-performing schools: So far 454 are trying “transformation,” the least disruptive model, while 135 are trying “turnaround,” 31 “restart” and 18 have closed.

Ed Week looks at restart efforts around the country, including “a Latino advocacy organization, several small charter operators, a nonprofit started by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a private company co-founded by former New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, and the American subsidiary of a British-based consulting company,” plus Edison Learning and Pearson Education.

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