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How To Turn Around A Failing School

A change in culture and increased focus on literacy have started to show progress at Mastery’s Smedley Elementary, one of the city’s first Renaissance schools

In the year before the School District turned Smedley Elementary into a Renaissance School, 30 students—from kindergarten to fifth grade—were arrested, mainly for fighting. Cop cars were a constant presence on the Frankford campus. And classroom learning often took a backseat to chaos: That year, more than 82 percent of Smedley fifth graders were reading two grades behind, according to their PSSA scores.

Mastery brought the model it has honed at stand-alone charters throughout the city to the neighborhood school in 2010, as part of the first group of Renaissance schools. Their work is not done yet. But as it applies for a charter renewal this spring, Smedley looks and feels like a whole new school. No one is arrested anymore. And through a deliberate focus on phonics and other literary skills—as much as three hours a day—reading scores are on the rise: From 35 percent proficiency the first year to 41 percent the last two years.

“Our mission here at Smedley is to make school incredibly fun and motivating for our students, but at the same time, focus on reading, which is the foundational skill that we know our students need to be successful in life,” said Brian McLaughlin, principal at Smedley for most of the last five years. (He’s now becoming Mastery’s Deputy Chief of Schools, and will be replaced by assistant principal Caitlin Murphy.)

Watch the video from documentary filmmaker Lauren Flick to learn more about how Mastery’s focus on literacy and culture is turning around a neighborhood school.

This video originally appeared on Open Education last year.

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