Charter CEO: Whiter and Wealthier a “Blatant Misrepresentation”
(Editors note: The following is a response from MaST CEO John F. Swoyer III to a controversial column this week from Citified insider Andrew Saltz. Citified fact-checked the central assertion of that column here.)
In the opinion piece of January 19th written by Andrew Saltz, a teacher at a district special admissions high school, he appears to conclude that my team at MaST Community Charter School, by virtue of the fact that we are a charter school, may use practices to bar or dissuade disadvantaged or racially diverse students in order to achieve our stature as one of the best academic performers without academic admissions criteria in Philadelphia. The blatant misrepresentation of our school was not only irresponsible of a professional educator, but was offensive to our hardworking students, parents, and teachers. I felt compelled to set the record straight on a number of the accusations in Saltz’s piece.
When MaST started in 1999, our founder, a seasoned school district leader, had a vision for a K-12 charter school. A small number of families took a leap of faith in the MaST model in its early stages. There was no wait list at that time, and everyone who applied was accepted. Many, if not all, of these families were from Northeast Philadelphia near the school’s location. Thus, our demographics reflected those of our surrounding neighborhoods. Over several years, MaST went from a few classrooms in an old steel building to one of the most innovative schools in Philadelphia serving students K12. Through careful fiscal management and creative use of resources, we developed and grew the school over time, offering an environment of rich student engagement through a STREAMbased (science, technology, robotics, engineering, arts, and math) curriculum. Fortunately, those families who initially ventured with MaST loved the school and what it provided for their students. As happens in all schools that do a good job (district, charter, and private), these parents, and those that have followed, stayed with us as their families grew.
Sibling preference has had an effect on the racial and socioeconomic diversity of our school. In recent years, the school’s demand from already enrolled families has meant that close to half of all kindergarten seats are awarded to siblings of current students, before any outside children have opportunities. This year, for example, our kindergarten filled 48 of 104 open seats with siblings of current students. Furthermore, we have a 90% student retention rate, and the vast majority of our students stay with us for 13 years. Because of these two factors, few seats become available each year in our upper grades. Even without sibling preference, we could expect that it would take 6.5 years to appreciably change our demographic profile based on our lottery alone.
Quickly, it becomes apparent that changing our school’s demographic profile is much easier said, as Mr. Saltz does, than practically done. We must, therefore, weigh serving our families with having a perfect demographic profile. Frankly, we see value for families in having their students at the same school. Our enrollment cap, a unique restriction that applies to charter schools but not district schools, further exacerbates this problem. We cannot simply add more seats with the goal of promoting diversity without violating our charter agreement.
Our school has always had an unrestricted, open lottery admissions process. We don’t have any barriers to our application process, period. We make our application available on paper and online, and in multiple languages. We maintain an open window to apply from October to the end of January with a public lottery held in February. We publicize it widely and openly. There are no parent interviews, night meetings, or restrictive application questions. The School District of Philadelphia recognized us for having one of the best admissions practices in Philadelphia, and we have been asked to discuss and share our process with others based on its openness, ease, and effectiveness. Our application volume reflects this ease. This year, we have over 6,500 applications from over 41 different Philadelphia zip codes and our application period is not even complete.
As for serving disadvantaged students, we have 495 students who receive free or reduced lunch, and 173 students with a whole spectrum of special needs. We were recognized for the quality of our service to these children as a Title I Distinguished School, one of only six in Philadelphia.
In making his argument, Saltz cites Disston, located in the Tacony section of Philadelphia, as a comparable district school despite the fact that the schools are in markedly different neighborhoods. MaST is located in Northeast Philadelphia, 16.99 miles (34 minutes) away from Disston. MaST’s closest neighborhood school is actually Comly Elementary School. According to the School District of Philadelphia website, the ethnic composition of Comly is Caucasian 56%, African American 11%, Asian 11.6%, Latino 8.5%, American Indian 0.6%, and 12.2% identified as “other.” At MaST, our kindergarten of 104 students is composed of Caucasian 67%, African American 9%, Asian 7%, Latino 13%, American Indian 1%, and multiracial 3%.
Unlike traditional neighborhood schools that draw from a single area, the composition of our school becomes more diverse each year as our reputation spreads, and more families from neighborhoods across the city apply to our school. It is worth noting that a new charter model like MaSTRoosevelt (Saltz only mentions Center City in his article, but we applied for two models that have distinct goals; a topic, perhaps, for another piece…) would have an open lottery system. Based on the demographics of families from 41 Philadelphia zip codes already on MaST’s waitlist, that school would look much more like a snapshot of all Philadelphia neighborhoods. This is only possible because we have a strong track record and reputation that took us over 15 years to achieve.
To make any progress in our city, we need to put an end to the type of fingerpointing Saltz endorses, and talk about our future in a more productive manner. Rather than making baseless assumptions backed by little data and understanding, the questions should be: What options can we, as public schools working together, offer that will provide more students with a high quality education? How can we learn or replicate from models that have been successful?
We are fortunate at MaST to have found educational practices that work, and we are pleased to see that many schools in Philadelphia have adopted some of our strategies, including STEM. ALL children, no matter their ethnicity, tax bracket, or special needs, deserve to have opportunities like this, and our time should be invested in figuring out how to provide these resources to even more students.
I invite Mr. Saltz and others who have concerns about our model: Come. Visit. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at what you see happening within our walls. I’m confident we could learn from you, too. It is only by this sharing of ideas and resources with our entire educational community that we will achieve true success for all of our students.