The start of another school year and the return to in-person instruction are making clear that we are facing an unprecedented challenge: How we respond to the huge learning loss caused by Covid-related disruptions and school closures over the last two years.
The damage is historic, especially among Black and Brown children from high-poverty neighborhoods. As reported in the New York Times in September, the latest national test results “showed in stark terms the pandemic’s devastating effects … with the performance of 9-year-olds in math and reading dropping to the levels from two decades ago.”
What’s more, the impact on high-poverty children is four times worse than that of their (mostly White) more affluent counterparts. Here in Philadelphia, which has both high poverty and frequent Covid-related school closures for the previous two years, the damage has been especially devastating.
We need to fix this, Philadelphia, and more importantly, we can fix it.
To get there, we need to provide the fundamentals that all great schools enjoy: High expectations for every student, a relentless focus on high-quality academic instruction, and giving all schools the resources to make it happen.
Mastery Charter Schools have more than 15 years of experience in turning around formerly struggling District and charter schools. We know that success is possible: More than 75 percent of Mastery’s schools have risen from the very bottom of the District to above the District average. More than 3,000 families returned to their previously struggling neighborhood schools after Mastery began managing them. Many Mastery alums now work as teachers and staff members in our schools, reinvesting in their communities.
Our success is proof that great neighborhood schools are possible. Here’s how:
First, demand excellence of all students. Yes, children have suffered trauma in the pandemic, especially in high-poverty neighborhoods. But our parents have told us straight up that what’s most important is ensuring their children are stretched and challenged academically. They don’t want poverty or trauma to be an excuse for the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Second, we need great teachers in every classroom. Let’s not be afraid to compete against suburban school districts for the very best teaching talent. We need to offer great pay and treat teachers like professionals, providing high-quality professional development and creating a top-notch workplace that allows them to plan, collaborate and master their craft. At Mastery, we pay our teachers well and we support them — and we have largely avoided the staffing shortages plaguing many urban schools right now.
Third, schools must relentlessly focus on delivering rigorous high-quality instruction. The academic program must be consistent, not subject to the latest idea about what works. The curriculum must challenge all students, and we must provide supports that account for disabilities and the higher needs of many high-poverty children. Mastery relies on accurate, specific data to track students’ progress and make informed assessments about what they need every day, every week, every year they’re in school.
Fourth, school buildings need to be habitable. The air conditioning needs to work, the toilets need to flush, and the copiers need to be stocked with paper. Yes, equitable funding is a huge issue. But to afford the services students need, schools need to be full.
Mastery schools have social workers and several instructional assistant principals, even though we get no more funding than other public schools. But our schools are fully enrolled, creating economies of scale that enable Mastery to hire more staff and maintain the buildings. Under-enrolled schools simply don’t have the financial resources that kids need. If we want great neighborhood schools, as a system we must make hard choices so each school has the resources to enable students to thrive.
After 20 years, we’ve learned there is no silver bullet to building great schools. But I know this much: We will succeed only if we as a city are committed to getting it done.
Scott Gordon, founder and CEO of Mastery Charter Schools since 2002, recently announced his retirement effective at the end of the 2022-2023 academic year.
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