Oprah rewards Mastery


Walking through the doors of Mastery Charter Schools’ Thomas Campus, 927 Johnston St., the brightly colored walls and signs of “Excellence. No Excuses” act as a symbolic greeting.

“We have super high expectations for our kids,” Principal Matt Troha said.

With excellence expected at every turn, students are celebrated for small acts of kindness and large-scale achievements.

“We expect so much from our students that when they do the right thing, we have to acknowledge that,” he said. “If you just have the disciplinary side of it, it only goes so far.”

With this attitude, it’s no wonder Mastery Charter Schools were one of six charter networks throughout the country awarded a $1 million grant during Oprah’s Angel Network finale, which aired Sept. 20. The episode centered around Academy-Award- winning director of Davis Guggenheim’s new education documentary “Waiting for Superman.” The 102-minute piece focuses on the state of public education in America today and how its affecting children. It sparked the network’s producers to research more than 20 schools making a significant difference in the classroom.

“Mastery Schools were a leading example of a groundbreaking education program in this country,” Angela DePaul, a spokeswomen for Oprah’s Angel Network, said about why the local charter was one of the few chosen. 

The schools worked closely with producers for several weeks to compile information about the positive changes in their schools and the accolades they have achieved over the last few years, Mastery Schools’ Deputy Chief Innovation Officer Courtney Collins-Shapiro said. After being chosen a few weeks ago, Mastery CEO, Scott Gordon and Principal of the Pickett Campus, 5700 Wayne Ave., Dr. Kelli Seaton, flew out to Chicago not knowing they were going to receive a grant. 

“I thought it was exciting enough we would get some national publicity because we do believe we’re running a world-class program here and we’re doing something very special here at Thomas and all seven of our campuses to get that kind of national recognition,” Troha, who was assistant principal at Pickett before coming on to head Thomas in 2009, said.

Being one of the six recognized on the show was a definitive reward for the students, families and teachers who work hard all year long.

“We feel very fortunate to be considered among the other outstanding charter schools that were featured on that episode of ‘Oprah’ and we do feel confident we are running an outstanding program,” Troha said. 

Opening three elementary schools this year, Mastery wants to increase its reach within the local communities and have children enrolled in their system from kindergarten through high school. With this in mind, Collins-Shapiro said the grant will be used toward an expansion plan to provide more schools and options for children over the next five years. The start-up cost to open up just one new school is $1.4 million.

""But she’s quick to note Thomas’ success stands out as one of the main reasons Mastery has been receiving national accolades and all of the teachers and students will be rewarded in the future.

“I think their money is going to be put to good use,” Keenan Burton-Sessoms, a ’10 Thomas graduate, said. “Mastery utilizes every dime they have for their students.” 

Operating seven schools within the city, the organization has developed a special partnership with the School District of Philadelphia and has been a leader in the Renaissance Schools program. As part of Dr. Arlene Ackerman’s Imagine ’14 initiative, historically low-performing schools are identified for intense intervention, which includes restructuring or bringing in an outside organization as new management. Each year their charters are open, Mastery adds a new grade to the middle schools until they reach 12. While doing so, each campus strives to maintain and strengthen their relationships with the surrounding neighborhood.

“We take the children and the schools and their families and the community and we want to keep that intact and put the right adults in place to make the school successful and get the students to college,” Troha said. “Our ultimate mission is to give our students the personal and academic skills to succeed in higher education, compete in the global economy and pursue their dreams.”

And the students of Thomas and all Mastery Schools have been doing just that. Since being taken over in ’05 when data showed the school’s students were achieving lower than expected and violence was continuing to increase, Mastery stayed true to its model.

“We have data that shows increases on standardized tests of more than 50 percentage points, violence is way down and we have really created an amazing learning environment that is going to allow our kids to go to college quickly,” Troha said.

PSSA results from ’05 show a significant increase in both math and reading scores compared to ’09. All members of the first graduating class last year were accepted into some form of post-secondary education and were awarded more than $2.9 million solely in institution-based aid.

Even with 620 students adhering to a uniform attire and strict disciplinary policy, the school’s quick turnaround wouldn’t have been possible without the dedicated teachers, administration and staff.

“We recruit, we train and we develop world-class teachers; and even if some of our teachers come in with less experience than others, we give them the coaching they need to get up to that level quickly,” Troha, a former math teacher, said. “The teachers are the true reason we have been successful in this building and in all of our buildings.” 

Burton-Sessoms, who was featured on the “Oprah” segment, agreed.

“The teachers were so open about their college and high school experiences,” the 18-year-old Columbia University freshman said. “They gave us a life outside from the actual schoolwork.”

He knew if he really wanted to be successful, college was a key component. And, the skills he gained at Mastery along with a perfect math score on his SATs helped him reach his goal. The 18th-Street-and-Snyder-Avenue resident’s experience corresponds with the promise Mastery makes to parents — that their children will be ready for college.

“The more satisfied our parents are with the education their children are receiving here, the more folks they are going to reach out to and the more of their own family members they are going to send here,” Troha said. “We certainly are a family here at Mastery and at the Thomas campus, we want to continue that feeling and have it spread from our building out into the community.”