Mastery Charter Elementary School report

The former Wakisha Charter School

by Deborah Grill

Catchment Area

Mastery’s application for a new charter states they are applying to open “a high quality elementary school option for families in the 19122 zip code and surrounding neighborhoods.”

  • Location:  the former Wakisha Charter School building at 9th and Jefferson Streets
  • Enrollment: 175 in year one (Grades 1-3); up to 672 by Year Five
  • Grades: K-8
  • Targeted Areas: Zip Codes 19122 ad adjacent areas of 19123 and 19121
  • Recruitment:  Citywide lottery with priority given to families in 19122, 19123 and 19121 Zip Codes.  Mastery says it will use its “network outreach team to canvass in the local area, host a variety of community meetings and events as well as use traditional advertising and social media to promote the new school.Mastery states that it chose this location because “the need for quality schools in this area is deep.”  Mastery states it has a successful track record of turning around unsuccessful schools.  However, the 2015-2016 district School Progress Reports (SPR), from which Mastery is basing its claims, indicate that all but 3 of its 14 Philadelphia schools fall into the Intervene or Watch Performance Tiers for Overall Progress and Achievement, including Lenfest Middle School and High School, which Mastery has been managing for 16 years.

Concerns: It would seem that Mastery would want to concentrate on improving their existing schools rather than open another school.  Mastery’s mission as Renaissance school was to make dramatic improvements to the schools.  There is no evidence of dramatic improvements.

The application states that for the past several months Mastery has already begun recruiting families through door-to-door canvassing, direct mail and targeted social media outreach.  Mastery projects to enroll 672 students by the 5th year of the new school’s existence.  In their application, Mastery stated that there are 12,095 children under the age of 18 in the 19122 area.  However, not all children under 18 are school age children.  Are they counting infants and toddlers? They claim to have 400 families from the targeted area on their waiting list. Mastery states that none of the four District Elementary schools in that area (Dunbar, Ludlow, McKinley and Moffet) rank in the top quartile citywide on either the SPP or the SPR.

None of Mastery’s 14 Philadelphia schools rank in the top quartile on the SPP.  In fact, those 4 public schools in Mastery’s targeted area have SPP scores similar to most of Mastery’s schools.

Concerns: During the application hearing, Charter Schools Office Director DawnLynne Kacer cited the lack of compelling evidence that Mastery would be able to meet their enrollment projection and stated that Mastery presented no evidence of parental statements to enroll their students in the new school.  Most of the community support was via general petitions which Mastery failed to include in the attachments to the application.

Teacher and Leader Recruitment

The application states that new teachers will be recruited by its network support team and through Relay Graduate School of Education and Teach for America as well as an informal partnership with several universities.   Mastery stated that it hires about 200 new teachers each year and 100 leaders.

Concerns: At the hearing, Ms. Kacer  raised concerns that the school would be staffed by predominately new, inexperienced teachers.  Relay Graduate School is not accredited in Pennsylvania.   It failed, after several attempts, in its bid for Pennsylvania accreditation.  If Mastery is hiring 200 new teachers and 100 new leaders each year for 14 schools, it brings concerns that teacher turnover is high.

Curriculum and Culture

While Mastery advertises itself as a “no excuses” school, this application states: “We intentionally create a community that balances structure and student independence so schools feel both orderly and joyful. A dedicated school culture team supports common rituals such as morning circles, community meetings, and school events that celebrate the school community and the joy of learning. Teachers adopt common school-wide classroom behavior systems so students are held to consistently high expectations.”   This Intentional School Culture model would incorporate Restorative Practices Social Emotional Programing and Cultural Context.

Mastery states that beginning in kindergarten the school “will nurture a college-going culture.” Each classroom will be named after a college or university.  Each grade will be identified by the year they will graduate from college. Each class will learn their college’s cheers and fight song. Students will go on field trips to colleges and universities.

Literacy and Math instruction will include blended learning programs, and Science and Social Studies will be taught in alternating years in grades 3-8 with Science offered is at least 4 of the 6 years.

Mastery uses its own “Mastery Value-Added System” (MVAS) data tool to measure student progress and rate teachers.

Concerns:  It still looks like a softer version of a no-excuses test prep program, with minimal instruction in social studies and the arts. During the application hearing, Ms. Kacer cited the lack of evidence of professional development in the areas of Restorative Practices and Trauma Informed Practices for the staff.  She also raised concerns that the school would be staffed by predominately new and inexperienced teachers. Although charter schools are supposed to be laboratories of innovation, there is actually nothing in Mastery’s application indicating that their program differs from those in district schools other than providing sufficient resources and staffing.  The district would be better off using the taxpayer money to adequately resource and staff its own schools.


The application states: ”The applicant team for MCES has a solid track record in starting and operating 14 successful charter schools in Philadelphia.”  Mastery has had several grants over the last ten years to support opening new schools from the US Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program for Replication and Expansion of High Quality Charter Schools (CSP), the Charter School Growth Fund, the Gates Foundation, and the New Schools Venture Fund, as well as grants from PSP, an organization of which Scott Gordon was a founding member.

Concerns:   How can Mastery sustain its growth? The application states they have opened 2 to 3 new schools in Philadelphia and Camden since 2010. According to the 990 form included in the attachments to its application, it has a deficit of $20M, and that is in spite of the almost $9M it receives in grants and philanthropic contributions.  Mastery still has a school waiting in the wings.  They have not yet opened the Gillespie campus for which they received a charter in 2015. Although the SRC allowed Mastery to extend the opening until the 2017-18 school year, it has still not opened.  Mastery has undertaken a $8.4M renovation on the Gillespie building, and according to the Great Schools website, is slated to open in the 2018-19 school year. At the application hearing, Mastery CEO Scott Gordon explained that their (hostile) takeover of Wister Elementary set Gillespie’s opening back.  It seems clear that Mastery’s bottom line is the growth of the Mastery chain at all expenses, even if it means tearing a neighborhood community apart.

Founding Coalition and Board

Mastery Charter High School is listed as the CMO.  The founding coalition board consists of three of its board members:

Robert S. Victor is Senior Vice President of Finance and Business Operations for Comcast Business.  Prior to working for Comcast he was a Partner and Managing Director of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) the same group that formulated a plan for the district to create a portfolio district that included outsourcing services and closing 64 schools.  He also chairs the Board of Trustees of Mastery Charter Schools.

Gerry Emery is a Partner at Ernst & Young.  He also serves on the Board of Trustees of Mastery Charter Schools.

Robin Olanrewaju is a Mastery parent and an Asset Manager for Lanre Properties LLC.   She is Secretary of the Board of Trustees of Mastery Charter Schools.

The board members for the new school will be those already sitting on Mastery’s Comprehensive Boards of Trustees which serves all of Mastery’s schools.

Student Privacy

Mastery students don’t have the same privacy protections as Philadelphia public school students have.  In the student handbook under Parents and Student Privacy Rights it states:

“If you want to request that Mastery NOT disclose your directory information, please write and sign a letter to the school including the statement below.

I have read this statement of my privacy rights to information in my education record and request that Mastery NOT disclose any personally-identifiable information from my student’s education records, including what is called “directory information,” without my prior written consent to any outside person or organization except where the disclosure is to the financial funders and supporters of Mastery. I recognize that Mastery relies on the financial funding and support provided by outside organizations for the operation of the school.”

Concerns: Why do financial funders and supporters need personally identifiable information on Mastery’s students?  Is this legal to require parents to allow Mastery, a “public” school, to do this?  

Other concerns: Mastery has several Renaissance Charters that were up for renewal in 2016 and 2017 and are still pending because Mastery has refused to agree to the conditions recommended by the CSO.  Why?  

During the hearing, the CSO stated that Mastery’s academic goals were not specifically measurable and there was a general lack of alignment with PA standards.   The CSO also cited a lack of clarity in the application concerning meals, board membership and governance and proposed management agreements.

Note:  Mastery is represented by Robert W. O’Donnell, former Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.  He introduced the first charter school bill in Pennsylvania and now specializes in charter school law.

The website of his firm, O’Donnell Stacey, states it “has been practicing in the area of charter school law since 1997 and is expert in the full spectrum of issues facing charter schools. We are familiar with the day-to-day experience of board members and administrators as well as the long-term institutional issues that drive school success.”

Return to
Philadelphia’s Proposed New Charter School Reports: February 22, 2018