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So far in our series on Philadelphia's troubled school system, we have heard about the enormous challenges of inadequate financing, budget cuts and poverty - obstacles all of America's largest, urban school districts are grappling with. Today, we look at what one camp in the school reform movement sees as a key solution: charter schools. These are taxpayer-funded schools typically managed by private nonprofits.
In Philadelphia, charter enrollment has soared. But are charters there doing any better than their regular, public counterparts? NPR's Eric Westervelt takes a look.
SHAYNA TERRELL: Miss Harris - oh, you brought your baby. Hi, mama.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Shayna Terrell is in a good mood. It's report card night at the Simon Gratz Mastery Charter High School in North Philadelphia, and parents are showing up in good numbers.
TERRELL: Hi. What grade?
WESTERVELT: Terrell, Mastery's outreach coordinator, welcomes parents.
TERRELL: Tenth grade, yep - just go through the red door, and stay to your left. OK?
WESTERVELT: A few short years ago, Simon Gratz was one of Philadelphia's - and the state's - most troubled, violent and academically underachieving high schools. Today, Gratz is very much on the rebound.
Terrell's goal for this night is to get 40 percent of Gratz parents to come to the school, meet teachers face to face, and get their child's report card. It's all part of the effort to make Gratz a positive hub for a community long challenged by high rates of poverty and crime.
TERRELL: More engaging, more inviting, different strategies that we use; so like, personal phone calls, invitations, incentives for kids - hey, if your parents come, you get a free sneaker pass.
WESTERVELT: Seventeen-year-old senior Aalliyah Mont was here before and after the charter takeover. She remembers when the rules suddenly got a lot tougher.
AALLIYAH MONT: It was like, 8:01, you're late. And we were like, huh? How are we late? And you could see everybody rushing back to school 'cause nobody wanted the consequences of getting a demerit, or your house getting called - like, a lot of stuff that we weren't used to.
WESTERVELT: This is still North Philly. There are still security guards, locked corridors and spot-checks on students during school time. But there's a fresh coat of paint on the walls, and a far more substantive change.
SCOTT GORDON: Previously when you walked in, you were greeted by school police, and passed through a metal detector.
WESTERVELT: That's Mastery Charter CEO Scott Gordon.
GORDON: What we did to change that was, there's now a reception desk; you're greeted by someone who smiles and says hello. We still have security for safety, make sure our kids are safe. But the idea was to change it into - as a place where you're welcomed.
WESTERVELT: Through the city's Renaissance program, a committee of parents chose Mastery Charter schools to lead the effort to pull Gratz out of the muck. Today, it's still a neighborhood school, and about 65 percent of the kids are from low-income families. But now it's run by Gordon's private nonprofit, not the school district. He likes to say Mastery's track record shows poverty is not destiny.
GORDON: I think if you spoke to folks prior to the turnaround, some would have assumed that a school like Gratz, kids couldn't achieve for lots of reasons - there's a culture of violence in the school; kids aren't prepared. And it turns out not to be true, that - while that poverty creates real obstacles, obstacles that require resources to overcome; that our kids are smart, resilient, given the right circumstances and support, will fly and succeed.
WESTERVELT: On the academic side, Mastery reduced class size, added tutoring programs and specialized reading classes. They've also re-vamped the curriculum. And robust intervention - whether addressing reading, truancy or poverty - has proved essential. If a student stops coming to class, Mastery will send a social worker to the house. Teachers are in frequent touch with parents, even helping link them with social assistance if they need it. The school has set up GED classes for the community as well as free legal clinics and tax-prep help for parents, and more.
CRAIG GOLDMAN: I talked to Miss Shayna Terrell, and she was - opened up arms up to us, and gave us access to the gym every Wednesday. And we definitely appreciate that.
WESTERVELT: Once a week, Craig Goldman works with a local nonprofit to turn the Gratz gym into a free food pantry for anyone in the neighborhood. It's just wrapping up as the parents file in for report card night.
GOLDMAN: We have pastries, we have some olive bread; some bread they can stuff the turkeys in.
WESTERVELT: It's the charter school's attempt to reach families beyond the classroom. Shayna Terrell...
TERRELL: I think we are doing something that there's no blueprint for. To fuse education with community engagement - I think it's a big mindset change, and a big concept. I think we all agree that it's important; we all know it's important.
WESTERVELT: It's a very different model from the classic public high school here and so far, they've gotten results. It's been just over two years, but Gratz's state math and reading test scores are up 12 and 9 percent, respectively. Graduation and college enrollment rates are up as well. Incidents of violence are down 84 percent. And the percentage of students who withdrew, or left, schools has been cut nearly in half.
But this is just one charter school, and many have long waiting lists. Critics say Philadelphia can't charter its way out of its school crisis.
TOM SUGRUE: Are some of the experiments successful? Yes. Have they proved to be that silver bullet for transforming urban public education? No.
WESTERVELT: That's sociologist and historian Tom Sugrue, with the University of Pennsylvania. He says too many kids who can't get into charters here feel trapped in a large, underfunded district whose support is unfairly pegged to local property taxes. Sugrue says the district gets less money overall than nearby suburban schools, especially given the huge number of high-risk, high poverty kids it serves. He says outsourcing turnaround won't fix those systemic school failures and gross funding inequities.
SUGRUE: I mean, the funding formula is, along with persistent racial segregation, is a formula for disaster: Concentrate poor, disadvantaged and minority students together; and school districts with crumbling infrastructure, with large classes; and then give them less money to do the job.
WESTERVELT: Sugrue and others question whether successful charters are really scalable. They argue that replicating this kind of turnaround - with its broad, wraparound outreach and support structures - is simply too expensive and hard. Mastery Charter raised more than $1.5 million from private sources - including foundations - to improve Gratz. Foundations insist that charters are creating pockets of success that in many cases, are helping at-risk minority and low-income kids.
And at Gratz, anyway, 17-year-old Aalliyah Mont says the changes saved her. New teachers, her basketball coach and others, she says, pushed her to make the school's motto - Excellence, No Excuses - more than merely a slogan.
MONT: They came to me saying, you know better. You've got more potential than this; you need to show it. And the one line I always hated, that people told me, was, you're a leader. Y'all want me to lead other people - people don't listen to everybody. And everybody was like, but they listen to you; they follow you. I didn't notice it, but they did.
WESTERVELT: They pushed me, she adds, and made me better.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
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