Head of the class

MaST Charter scores well in new school performance ratings.

Top grade: Stu­dents at work on new com­puters at the MaST Charter School lib­rary, which also fea­tures a gi­ant screen built in­to the floor for kids to use with read-alongs. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

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. ••

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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