It might require matching doctoral degrees in math and education to grasp the entirety and meaning of Pennsylvania’s latest state-mandated school assessment program.
But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why MaST Community Charter School scored so well on the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s inaugural School Performance Profile report.
Fourteen years and two major expansions after its founding, the 140,000-square-foot learning center at 1800 Byberry Road in Somerton looks nothing like a traditional neighborhood public school. Instead, it evokes a summer camp where aspiring astronomers and aeronautical engineers, software designers and sound technicians have seemingly unlimited access to futuristic gadgets and laboratories.
They have a high-powered rooftop telescope, a 3D printer, a custom-made wind tunnel and a broadcast/film production studio. Instead of a library, the school has a sparkling new “media center” equipped with more computer stations than NASA. All of these devices fit into the school’s mission, which emphasises science, technology, robotics, engineering, arts and math.
The teachers seem to be having as much fun as the students in this “project-based learning” environment, according to the school’s CEO, John Swoyer.
“I like to think of it like this: If you look at any school, the test scores are a measure of success with the academic piece,” Swoyer said during a Dec. 16 tour of MaST. “But we’re also focused on innovation. We’re trying to develop all-around students.”
The Department of Education released its initial “academic score” for most schools in the state in October and issued its complete data on Dec. 9. The information is available via www.paschoolperformance.org
MaST earned a “building level academic score” of 90 based on a complex formula that accounts for standardized test scores, college entrance exam participation and scores, school-level proficiency goals, graduation rates, attendance rates and the success of “historically underperforming students,” among many other factors. The score is based on a 100-point scale, but up to seven “bonus points” are available to schools through other factors like advanced placement exams.
Other local charter schools also fared well, including Franklin Towne High (89.1), New Foundations (83.5), Franklin Towne Elementary (81.8), Philadelphia Academy (80.0), Northwood (79.5) and First Philadelphia (76.6).
As a reference point, the city’s Central High School scored 101.3, while Masterman High scored 95 and George Washington High scored 54.9. In the nearby suburbs, Lower Moreland High scored 92.1, with Neshaminy High at 91.1 and Bensalem High at 74.8.
All public and charter schools (including cyber schools) were given a score regardless of the grades they serve and the level of enrollment. The formula was designed to account for those discrepancies, with the scores representing a standard level of “performance” among these vastly different schools. Parochial and private schools were not assessed.
MaST serves 1,322 students in kindergarten through 12th grade at the Byberry Road site. Among those, 1,250 students live in Philadelphia, while 72 live outside the city (their families moved to the suburbs but chose to keep their children enrolled at MaST).
The city’s School Reform Commission, which oversees the city’s public schools as well as the granting and renewal of charters, has capped MaST’s Philadelphia-based enrollment at 1,250. MaST’s public funding is enrollment-based. Essentially, the SRC collects money from Harrisburg and is responsible for allocating the proper amounts to each of the city’s charter schools. Suburban school districts similarly compensate MaST for the 72 students who do not live in Philadelphia.
The SRC initiated the charter renewal process for MaST in 2012. The formal renewal is pending. Typically, charters are subject to renewal every five years.
In the past, the state assessed public and charter schools based largely on a set of standardized tests known as PSSAs. Schools were graded based on the improvement or decline in their test scores, as well as safety, attendance and other factors. Under the controversial system, public funding was tied directly to Annual Yearly Progress (AYP).
The state introduced Keystone Exams to replace PSSAs in secondary-level grades last school year. Meanwhile, the legislature in 2012 created the Educator Effectiveness System, which will use data derived from the School Performance Profile to grade teachers (starting this school year) and principals (starting next school year).
And there’s a lot more to it than that.
“Toward the end of last year, (the state) announced they were going to use a new system for assessing academic effectiveness,” Swoyer said.
MaST sent many faculty and administrators to a workshop in the fall to learn more about the new expectations.
“I think they use it as a measure of the growth with each student,” Swoyer said.
Alone, the numbers may seem ambiguous. But they are meant to be used in a relative context.
“Us getting a 90 this year is good, but now the bar is set,” Swoyer said. “The teachers and parents, they think it’s great news, but we’re also cautious about the areas we need improvement. … This is good to see where we stand in the charter community because that’s who we’re competing against for seats.”
The school CEO makes no secret of the fact that MaST would like to expand, perhaps beyond the boundaries of its Byberry Road property.
“The biggest thing right now is we’re trying to grow in the city. All of these charter schools want to grow,” Swoyer said. “We want to educate kids. We want to be able to provide those opportunities.”
Thousands of students want to take advantage of the opportunities at MaST, but cannot do so. In advance of the 2013-14 school year, MaST fielded about 5,700 enrollment applications. In keeping with state law, admission is not based on achievement or aptitude. It’s basically all luck. Only siblings of currently enrolled students get preferential treatment. About 130 students won the “lottery” and were accepted. MaST serves students from 47 different ZIP codes. Most students live in the Northeast, but virtually all areas of the city are represented in the student body.
During the ongoing charter renewal process, MaST officials have asked the SRC for a higher enrollment cap, but the school has not been granted more seats. Meanwhile, the SRC has declined to renew charters at other schools for various reasons.
Ideally, Swoyer would like the SRC to work with MaST to develop a plan for growth that allows the school to prepare for increased enrollment in advance of its next renewal. The school already has inquired about other properties in the Northeast for a possible secondary campus.
“If they shut down other charter schools, where do all of those seats go?” he said. ••