PHILADELPHIA -- To walk the halls of Mastery Charter Schools' Harrity Elementary in southwest Philadelphia, where 94 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a visitor would never guess that the school in recent years was one of the city's most violent and lowest-performing.
The building is quiet and orderly. Students wear uniforms and move efficiently from class to class and task to task with a sense of urgency. Student work is displayed in the hallways along with inspirational mottoes about working to achieve daily and lifelong success. Violence is down significantly and achievement is up.
The change has taken place as part of the School District of Philadelphia's Renaissance Schools Initiative through which charter operators were invited to take over some of the district's most troubled neighborhood schools. Mastery, which now operates 10 schools in Philadelphia, has operated the schools in the same neighborhoods with the same feeder area and same population of students as the city district.
It's an option available to Philadelphia schools because they operate under a special commission. For the rest of the state, the procedure for turning a public school into a charter school involves getting 50 percent of the teachers and parents to sign a petition and file a charter application.
But if legislation proposed last month by state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin County, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, becomes law, districts that meet the bill's definition of financially distressed also could have the option of bringing in a charter organization to manage a school as part of their financial recovery plans.
Such districts include the Duquesne City School District, Chester-Upland in Delaware County, and the York and Harrisburg districts.
The bill was approved by the Senate Education Committee and awaits a vote by the full Senate.
The bill has generated interest among potential charter operators in Allegheny County.
"I think it's something that we've talked about that we have an interest in, and we are hoping that those kinds of opportunities will materialize in this part of the state," said Jeremy Resnick, executive director of Propel Schools, which operates nine charter schools in Allegheny County.
Also interested in the legislation is Connie Lucas, an elected school director in Duquesne who recently filed an application to start a charter school in Duquesne.
"This is exactly what we are trying to do," Ms. Lucas said. "People are interested because they want a school in Duquesne, but they don't want the same failing education."
Mastery's success prompted Oprah Winfrey to donate $1 million to the chain in September 2010 and garnered praise from President Barack Obama during a speech on school reform to the Urban League in July 2010.
But not everyone is happy about the charter takeovers of regular public schools.
Ted Kirsch, president of the AFT Pennsylvania, the union that represents Philadelphia teachers, said the union opposed Mr. Piccola's bill and the turnover of Philadelphia schools to charter operators.
"They are just giving away all of our schools," Mr. Kirsch said.
Few public schoolteachers remain on the staff when Mastery takes over management. Those who don't stay go back into the pool of teachers in the Philadelphia district, which has seen furloughs in recent years and expects more this year.
In Duquesne, the impact on teachers of students being assigned to other districts already is expected this fall whether a charter is permitted or not. The board of control has said an unspecified number of teachers will be laid off, particularly if the plan to send seventh- and eighth-graders to West Mifflin Area and East Allegheny takes effect.
Mr. Kirsch said the Philadelphia district could produce the same results as Mastery and has done so in its "Promise Academies," which are district schools that have received extra resources and reorganization through the Renaissance Initiative.
"If you give schools and kids what they need, they can produce. That's what's so frustrating." he said.
In his blog last week, Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, criticized the School Reform Commission for its plans to convert Creighton Elementary into a Universal Companies charter school even though parents and teachers have developed a plan to turn the school around.
"The SRC's decision says to me that the commissioners don't trust their own teachers and staff, don't believe in local control of neighborhood public schools, don't want engaged parents and have no interest in turning public schools around themselves," he wrote.
Mastery started much like Propel with a start-up charter school at its Lenfest Campus in Philadelphia in 2001. Its students came from various schools and were admitted based on a lottery.
Mastery got into the turnaround business under the administration of Paul Vallas, former CEO of the Philadelphia schools, with Philadelphia's Thomas Middle School in 2005, followed by Shoemaker in 2006 and Pickett in 2007. Each school served either grades 7-8 or 6-8, and all gradually became 7-12 schools.
Each school offers a host of sports teams and other extracurricular activities, unlike the current charter high schools in Western Pennsylvania, which offer little in the way of competitive sports or major extracurricular activities.
Since Mastery took over, its statistics show that test scores at Thomas, Pickett and Shoemaker have increased an average of more than 50 percentage points per grade and subject and violence has decreased by 80 percent. Student turnover dropped by one-third.
In 2011, Shoemaker, which had been the second-most-violent school in the district before the Mastery takeover, made adequate yearly progress -- known as AYP under the federal No Child Left Behind Act -- on the state math and reading exams.
The other two schools missed on subgroups: At Thomas, it was special education in math. At Picket, it was subgroups of African-American in reading, special education in math and economically disadvantaged in reading.
Following the middle school takeovers, Mastery again was invited by the Philadelphia district in 2010 -- this time under the tenure of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman -- to manage three elementary schools. Those schools were Harrity, Smedley and Mann.
According to Mastery, since then, enrollment has increased by 20 percent, violence has dropped by 85 percent and "reading scores are accelerating on pace to close the achievement gap" at those schools.
None of the three schools made AYP in 2011, but as new schools, they were judged against statewide targets rather than the low performance by students at the school when the district operated it.
This year, Mastery is trying to turn around two more Philadelphia schools, Clymer Elementary and Simon Gratz High School.
Mastery opened the Harrity and Shoemaker schools to reporters visiting Philadelphia last month for the Education Writers Association conference.
Mastery administrators, including founder and CEO Scott Gordon, explained that students are informed from the moment they enroll in a Mastery school about the nonnegotiable high academic and behavioral expectations. Orientations are held before students start class. College acceptance is the ultimate goal and the expectation for every student.
"You are aggressive and you have really high expectations," said Courtney Collins-Shapiro, chief innovation officer for Mastery.
Initially, Mastery officials instituted a zero-tolerance policy for violence, which resulted in 10 percent of the 664 original Harrity students leaving. But so many others enrolled that the school is now at capacity with 850 students and has 56 on a waiting list.
Now, instead of removing or suspending violent students, Mastery uses other measures such as an alternative program, through which students can earn their way back to the regular school, or in-school suspensions with parents in attendance in some cases.
Changes come quicker at the lower levels than in the high schools. "In the higher grades you are making up for a lot of history, a lot of underachieving and working below grade level," Ms. Collins-Shapiro said.
Still, Mastery's goal is to have students testing at grade level within four yearsof taking management of a school. The underlying theme for both students and employees is the Mastery motto: "Excellence. No Excuses."
Mastery officials have found that as violence decreases and academics improve, enrollment increases and parental involvement picks up. "We find that once we turn a school around, parents get incredibly involved," Mrs. Collins-Shapiro said.
Teachers are also held to high standards. Pay is based on performance and is measured by student achievement, instructional quality and adherence to Mastery values and contributions. Mastery officials said the average salaries for its teachers of about $61,000 and the top pay of nearly $84,000 are lower than for the district's teachers.
While critics say teacher turnover due to burnout or firings is high among Mastery staff, Mastery officials said the annual turnover rate is 15 percent -- about the same as the Philadelphia district -- with 3 to 5 percent being asked to leave. Before teachers are fired, they receive two warnings and are given a six-week improvement plan.
For Elizabeth Moffitt, the Mastery turnaround of Mann Elementary has been a godsend. She pulled her grandson, Michael, out of Mann after first grade because of its poor performance and high violence. She said the school had a long history of both, dating to when her children attended several decades ago.
But she returned Michael to the school this year for sixth grade and anticipates he will advance to Mastery's Shoemaker Campus.
"Now the students are told you are going to come in and treat each other with respect. Just the change in the culture in the first semester. The nurturing. The respect. The order they brought to the school. The kids started to progress faster than we thought they would," Mrs. Moffitt said.
Her grandson is already taking Saturday classes to prepare him for the expectations he will face at Shoemaker next year.
"This turnaround has been wonderful. He gets a great education in his neighborhood. Tax dollars are well spent and there are good public schools," Mrs. Moffitt said.
Mary Niederberger: email@example.com; 412-263-1590.