Julia R. Masterman Visit

I drove up to the Julia R. Masterman school on a clear, sunny day in late September. Finding the visitor entrance to the school on a narrow side street, I pushed on the heavy hinges, and drawing a deep breath, I entered into the busy lobby of the school. Apparently, I had walked into the school during the transition period between the last class and the next. I looked to the lobby guard, and she in turn pointed to my right – towards the main office.

I stood at the front of the room for a bit, and asked for my contact, Ms. Anita Nicholson, the assistant principal of the building. The secretary motioned for me to take a seat, and so I turned and shuffled to the side, where my eyes were drawn to the myriad of posters that covered the walls of the office – some were educational, some were reminders, and some were ads placed by the students; indeed, it felt that the only thing missing from the wall was the conspicuous presence of paint and concrete from the wall itself.

The Julia R. Masterman School System is located in central Philadelphia, composed of a magnate middle and high school serving students from the fifth to twelfth grade; it currently is ranked the top high school in the state of Pennsylvania, and 61st in the country overall. The mathematical and reading proficiency in the school is miles above the rest of the school district of Philadelphia, and currently houses around 1200 students from a mix of racial and economic backgrounds.

The Masterman school is an admissions-driven program – prospective students apply in fourth grade to be enrolled in the school system, and will need to re-apply in eight grade to gain admissions into the high school. Due to space limitations, not all middle school students are able to be admitted into the high school – those rejected typically find themselves in neighboring high schools, or enroll in an art or sport-specialty school. For those who are accepted, however, as most of the Masterman high school is composed of Masterman middle schoolers, the school now has a four-year record of each student in the school – this allows them an unprecedented level of education tailored to the needs of each student.

Such tailored education was also augmented in part by the dual role of certain teachers in the system as “deans” of an age group – each dean, in addition to the school counselors, are responsible for the general well-being of students in their respective assigned age groups. Mr. Boback, Ms. Tait, and Ms. Dopkin are the deans of 5th – 6th grade, 7th – 8th grade, and 9th – 12th grade, respectively. It is their job (aside from teaching) to maintain teacher – student cohesion, and to resolve disputes that students may have with the faculty.

Ms. Nicholson led me into her office, where two middle school students were working diligently on homework at a table placed immediately before her desk – she gently shooed them away, and went around the desk to pull up a chair. Settling herself comfortably behind her desk, she looked at me, smiled, and began to answer my questions.

The mission of the Masterman school, Ms. Nicholson told me, was to actively encourage students to engage in community service and extra-curricular activities for self-improvement. What this encouraged in practice then, was an environment of fostering creativity and unconventional interests – each day came with a mandatory “options” period, in which students were free to choose an activity that was best suited towards their individual wants. During sports season, those who are on the school teams use the options period to travel to away games; for the rest of the school, the options period offered a myriad of intellectual enrichment opportunities, including a series of lectures presented during the period by local figures and a mentally gifted workshop. The drive to fulfill the mission can be seen too, in the active encouragement of student-led clubs and activities – most notably, a student, driven by a passion towards the sciences, once directed a club with the sole intent of taking the AP Physics exam.

The Masterman school also encourages after school student-led tutoring – during this time, students who need help on homework can stop by and ask for advice; for those students whose GPA or class performance falls under a certain threshold, these tutoring sessions are mandatory, and will continue until the student in question raises their performance above the threshold.

Mr. Boback and Ms. Dopkins at this point entered the room, and seeing that we were all settled, Ms. Nicholson hurried off to an appointment, leaving me with the two teacher-deans.

One of the main problems I can see with starting a school lies in the difficulty in rallying the community to support the actions of the school – the ability of convincing the parents that our school has the students’ best interests at heart is central to any given school’s success; for us, who wish to start a school in an impoverished neighborhood, this ability becomes paramount. How do we convince the community that our school is best for the students? How do we deal with parents who are neglectful of their child?

One of the key points in the Masterman system comes to play here, and is especially telling – the years of records the school has of each student, painstakingly indexed, are essential to the continued education of those kids whose parents are not doing all that they can to help. A demonstrated history of neglect in the records of the student act as a number of warning signs; armed with these indicators, the school can then set out to rectify the situation as early as possible. While it is true that the school cannot do anything for the children when they are at home, it is the belief of Mr. Bobak and Ms. Dopkins that in the classroom, at least, it is the teacher’s job to do all that he can to help compensate for a neglectful parent.

The process of hiring a teacher at the Masterman school is similar to that of the University of Chicago Charter School Woodlawn Campus – a potential teacher, who must have at least three years of experience and have passed the Philadelphia “demonstration” exam, will first interview with the department heads of the school, as to determine his / her competence in the proposed areas of expertise. The teacher is then invited to teach several trial classes, with a diverse test group of students giving feedback to the school about the potential teacher’s ability. Unlike UCW however, such trial classes are the same for each potential teacher, so that their performance can be easily compared to one another. Should the applicant demonstrate sufficient ability to teach, he is once again interviewed, this time by a group of students, teachers, administrators, and parents. This last interview is designed to be a way for the teacher to get more feedback on teaching methods, and a way to ask questions about the potential hardships associated with teaching in the Masterman school.

Currently, newly accepted teachers are required to undergo quarterly formal teacher assessment and evaluations; a Department of Education representative will sit in on a class, and grade the teacher on such criteria as class management skills, teaching strategies, and his / her overall ability to control the classroom and student behavior. After a set number of years, these evaluations will decrease in frequency – however, the teacher is still required to take actions to further improve their teaching methods – such “profession improvement plans” include teacher – teacher feedback workshops, college courses, and active participation in a project or research.

Mr. Bobak, Ms. Dopkins, and Ms. Nicholson all re-iterated the importance of a well-defined mission statement – as the summarization of a school’s goals, the statement must hold up to strong criticism, and must be backed by evidence to show such a statement is both feasible and effective. Such a statement, if made properly, can draw the community together, and foster a joint venture by both parents and teachers to further the intellectual and emotional development of the children.

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