Celebrating Charter Schools 25th Anniversary (And Our 10th)

Recently, our School District’s Charter School Office recommended that the School Reform Commission, (Philadelphia’s school board) accepts Shoemaker’s charter renewal application. This means that the Shoemaker Campus’s partnership with the Parkside, Carroll Park, Wynnefield, and Hestonville communities will continue for another five years (in Philadelphia, charter schools have to apply to remain open every five years).

This fall, our school community is looking forward to starting our eleventh year as a turnaround school. We are excited to continue our work and we strive to live up to our value of continuous improvement. Much to the chagrin of some anti-school choice groups, we aim to continue to build on the success of our partnerships over the past ten years.

Anti-Charter Groups are not aligned with communities trapped in redlined districts

The local charter critics often use false and misleading data to denigrate high performing charters which often exposes that their allegiances are not aligned with communities trapped in redlined districts or with the children assigned to attend schools that have persistently failed communities for decades.

In light of this week’s National Charter School Conference, held a few months after National School Choice Week, I wanted to dispel some popular and deceitful myths about some high performing charters here in Philadelphia.

False: Mastery schools impose a rigid climate on their students. The disciplinary code allows for demerits that can build to detention and expulsion for a wide variety of behaviors including exhibiting disrespect by rolling one’s eyes or sucking one’s teeth. 

Fact: We use a restorative practice model that balances high expectations with high levels of support. Instead of police officers, we hire social workers and partner with high performing behavioral health agencies to support our students to persevere through trauma, poverty, or simply adolescence. Our year-to-year retention rate measures how many of our students remain in our school community. Within the school year, 96% of our students remain with us. 97% of our students reenroll from year to year. We are not satisfied with our suspension rates and we are continuing to dive deeper into our professional development to find even better ways to support our students through a restorative justice model.

False: Mastery Schools cream students from the top and operate like magnet schools.  

Fact: The vast majority of Mastery’s schools are neighborhood schools that serve the neighborhood catchment areas. The students reside in the same zip codes of their schools, essentially attending their neighborhood school.  The School District of Philadelphia has used the Renaissance charter model which provides space for any student in the neighborhood to attend. After Mastery partners with a community, families who had previously opted out of the neighborhood school, return to their community school. We serve as a stabilizing anchor for our neighborhoods.

False: Students who struggle are pushed out of our schools.  

Fact: It is important to note that we understand (and continue to learn) that systemic racism, historical oppression, and redlining play a huge role in how our students perform and how communities view our city’s schools.

We recognize trauma as a byproduct of this oppression and it represents a significant and sustained factor in undermining our communities. Instead of creaming the students who have demonstrated that they are bolstered against this oppression, we aim to support the entire community.

We know that in some of our schools, over a third of our students have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACES). We believe these students can achieve at the highest levels. We believe that these students have a foundation of grit and fortitude that can be built upon with strong systems of support and collective accountability. We don’t make excuses about what our students can achieve-even those students who may not be desirable to local magnet schools.

Some additional data about our schools:

  • Trauma rates in Mastery schools are 3-6 times higher than national avg.
  • 16% of Mastery students fit “highest risk” criteria (Student Risk Assessment Scale).
  • Only 13% of adults in Pennsylvania have an ACES score of 4 or higher. In the zip codes we serve, 30-45% of our students have an ACES score of 4 or higher.
  • Violent crime rates in Mastery’s turnaround neighborhoods are 5 times the national median and 3 times the Philadelphia median.
  • Unemployment rate in Mastery turnaround neighborhoods is 2 to 3 times the national average.

False: Charters destabilize communities because of the student and staff turnover once a failing school becomes a Mastery school.

Fact: High performing charters provide the stability that neighborhoods have craved for generations. While many of Philadelphia’s schools targeted for turnaround, often had high staff and student turnover prior to turnaround, the renaissance process actually stabilizes the high turnover rates-despite the continuing transiency within the neighborhood.

In many urban schools, the turnover rate for students can fluctuate between 40% and 80% every year. We are proud to remain a counter balance to this issue. The average student retention rate before we partner with a community is 65%. After communities partner with us, the retention rate is 95%. Only one of these numbers can be said to represent stability for neighborhoods. After the initial turnover, our staff retention rate is approximately 85%. Some of the staff movement can be attributed to promotions and transfers.

At the end of the day, we know we have a lot of work to do. That is what respectful service looks like-constantly trying to serve our communities in a better way. And, in the spirit of continuous improvement, we intend to do just that. But, to simply disparage the ideas of school choice, higher standards, and accountability is disingenuous and seethes of hypocrisy and blinding privilege.

Instead, Philly, let’s work together to ensure that every family has a great school option in their neighborhood. A school that does not discriminate based off of past test scores and performance.

mastery data

Even if your neighborhood isnt gentrified, it deserves a great school

It is still far too easy to predict the quality of education a Philadelphia child is slated to receive-one simply needs to look up the child’s zip code. In some ways, sadly, we are a city of neighborhoods, zip codes, and failing neighborhood schools.

No matter what your belief is about charter schools, I hope you agree that every community in Philadelphia (and around the country) deserves a great neighborhood public school, even in the areas that are not gentrified and remain conspicuously Black and Brown. In Philadelphia, and around the country, charter schools are a part of this calculus.

Although I was unable to make it to the National Charter School Conference this year, I am wishing charter schools much success and learning on behalf of students over the next 25 years. I hope it was a great conference.

Onwards, Charter Schools. Onwards. Our communities are counting on you.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.



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