Turnaround Spotlight: Philadelphia Mastery Charter Schools

Mastery Charter Schools (MCS) is a charter management organization operating 17 schools with over 10,000 students. Currently operating exclusively in Philadelphia, all but one of MCS’s schools are turnaround schools. MCS keeps the same buildings and students while changing the school management, including systems and some staff, to turn around previously low-performing district schools. At MCS, 87 percent of students are low-income and 96 percent of students are minority.

All of MCS’s schools set the goal to close the performance gap with the state within four years. While all MCS turnaround schools were low-achieving at the time MCS took over managing them, by 2013 they outperformed district averages. In addition to the improved test scores, MCS schools reported 80 percent fewer disciplinary and behavioral incidents compared to pre-turnaround and a decrease in student turnover of 50 percent.

With the motto, “Excellence. No Excuses.”, MCS has a culture of high expectations. All adults and students are held to high standards, creating a college-focused culture by setting and enforcing expectations. MCS makes sure all staff have a consistent mindset regarding school culture, student support, and discipline.

MCS focuses on developing teachers, investing heavily in centralized instructional and teaching standards. Instructional coaches are assigned to each school and work with experienced teachers to conduct observations and provide coaching on a continuous basis. New teachers train for three weeks in the summer and all staff participate in two weeks of planning and training before the school year begins. Additional collaborative planning periods are conducted weekly throughout the year.

Career pathways are linked with staff development and incentives to retain and grow teacher talent. MCS has created a four-level career advancement system through which teachers can progress. Each level is unrelated to seniority or academic degrees, linking instead to a performance-based compensation system. Teachers are rewarded both for their students’ and the overall school’s achievement which determine promotion and pay.

MCS’s redesigned compensation system appears promising, with retention rates for high-performing teachers at 93 percent. The reward system has also been able to successfully exit underperforming teachers whether because MCS did not renew their employment or because the teacher chose to leave after not receiving performance pay.

Acknowledging that students enter school at different levels, middle and high schools offer various course options to meet students where they are at in different subjects. Remedial coursework and interventions are used to make sure that all students are participating in pre-college classes by 11th grade. With high academic expectations, students are not able to skate by if they underperform. Students with grades below 76 percent must repeat a course, only passing once they demonstrate mastery over the content.

Learn more about successful turnarounds in Innovate Public Schools’ report, “Struggling Schools, Promising Solutions.”

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