Leadership Lessons

Scott Gordon – Pushing boundaries for educational equity

It was 1973 in Philadelphia, and Scott Gordon was missing school — lots of it. Instead, he and his four brothers were gathered around a neighbor’s kitchen table learning math while his teachers picketed his elementary school during an eight-week strike.

“After that happened, my parents picked up and moved to the suburbs where the air was clean and blah, blah, blah,” Scott recalled. His father, a special education administrator, told his sons simply that “there would be better schools” in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. So, the Gordon family left Philadelphia.

Young Scott didn’t take well to the new surroundings, though. “I always felt a thing for the city of Philadelphia. Cherry Hill was a classic suburb. But it wasn’t my thing.”

Eventually, the connection to Philadelphia drew him back. Now, in his 17th year as founder and chief executive officer of Mastery Charter Schools, Scott oversees an organization that is known for turning around struggling public schools — both district and charter — while creating better and varied post-secondary opportunities for its students. “We are charter schools that operate in neighborhoods, serving kids we expect to go to Harvard or Howard.”

But while Cherry Hill wasn’t his thing, working and contributing was. From an early age, he always had a job — first as a newspaper boy, and eventually as a stock room attendant, substitute high school English teacher, restaurant dishwasher and street vendor. After college, he even studied auto mechanics with the dream of creating a worker-owned automotive repair garage.

“I believed the way to change the world was that people should have quality jobs, real jobs, and be able to put food on the table — because lots of folks I was friendly with struggled with that,” said Scott. “I thought the only way to change things and have power was to figure out how the system worked and how people run things. That’s why I went to business school.”

After graduating, he started working for General Foods and paid off his student loans. But he always had a thing for Philly and knew he’d do something different, he said. “I wanted to come back here to contribute to my community. I started a worker-owned homecare agency that was really more like job training for recent graduates or dropouts. The idea was to train folks so they could have an entry-level job as a home-health aide and hopefully go back to school to become an LPN (licensed professional nurse).

“Doing it for seven years, I loved the training and education part, and I loved the people I worked with. I just got deeply, profoundly bitter and angry as I saw the people I loved and cared for not able to pass an algebra exam and therefore not able to pursue a two-year degree,” he recalled.

About the same time, Scott’s stay-at-home-mom-turned-special-education-teacher passed away unexpectedly.

“It’s one of those moments when you have an opportunity to think about what’s important and what you want to do in the limited time we have on this planet. I decided I wanted to be a high school principal, one day,” Scott said.

In 2000, he created a plan for a public charter school after Pennsylvania passed its new charter school legislation. That plan started with 100 ninth graders in 2001, initially replicating the model of a technology-focused high school in California.

“What I learned was that regardless of the theme or approach to education, the curriculum or model, my previous experience in management and organizational leadership turned out to be important,” Scott said. “Were we hiring the right people? Were we training and supporting those folks? Were outcomes clear? Were we measuring those outcomes? Were there systems in place? That was fantastically important in terms of our ability to serve kids.”

After showing success in its first few years, Philadelphia school district officials asked Mastery to turn around various middle schools that were persistently struggling academically or unsafe and convert them into successful middle-high schools. Then, Mastery was asked to take over schools that also contained regional special education centers serving students who were cognitively impaired or medically fragile. Next, Mastery turned around three failing charter schools — two in Philadelphia and one in nearby Camden, New Jersey.

Now, Mastery serves about 13,500 students in 24 schools in Philadelphia and Camden, and it is the largest public charter school network in Philadelphia, where one-third of students attend charters. Since Mastery started its turnaround work, student assessment results have increased an average of 40 percentage points per grade and subject, violence decreased by 80 percent and student turnover was reduced by half.

“We see our role as innovating what a public-school district can and should be for low-income kids of color,” Scott said. Like many other peers in the charter and school-turnaround worlds, Mastery first employed a “no-excuses” model where students signed academic and behavioral contracts, attended classes on Saturdays and had longer school days. For the last several years, Mastery shifted to building strong relationships with students to improve student outcomes, and that work has been hard, but it also has been a sea-change for Mastery — which educates in neighborhoods where gun violence is all too commonplace.

“We’re talking about students who have often not been successful, kids have been unsafe, not connected to the institution, not connected to adults. School culture has to borrow from the best charter networks about very high expectations for every child and clear structures so kids know what to expect,” Scott said. “But it also needs to be thoughtful about building relationships with kids, recognizing that relationships are the very center of what is the spark for a young person’s intrinsic motivation to work hard and persevere through the obstacles that life presents.”

For the man who wanted to be the principal of one high school, creating this mindset at two dozen schools is an ongoing proposition. At each Mastery campus, supporting the social-emotional well-being of young people became as embedded in school culture as high academic expectations.

“For a school district, we have to figure out how to scale both love, if you will, and a sense of structure and safety. And because our schools educate a high number of students with special needs, we also scale supports for kids who struggle. We have to have all of that embedded in ‘we’re a public school, and we’re here for every child,’” Scott said. “There have been only a few examples across the country of districts that have been able to do that for our lowest-income students.”

On a recent afternoon, Scott shared how pleased he was about that day’s professional development session for teachers. They learned common lesson-plan protocols and went into greater detail unpacking math standards, and they also focused on school culture. The school culture work, he says, has been a lightning rod. “Embedded in that is folks’ assumptions about our kids — what they believe about our kids.”

Scott brings a healthy respect for continuous improvement and self-reflection to Mastery, so the work continues to evolve. “While we feel great about lots of those changes, we felt like the soul of the idea is there in others, but it’s not terribly well-executed and there’s still variability across our network,” he said. “It’s clear we need to make some changes.”

What hasn’t changed is Scott’s idea of what school should feel like for families. “I would want a parent who walks into Mastery to feel like ‘this is a school that deeply believes in my child and my family and is going to hold my kids to high expectations and recognize that high expectations alone are not enough,’ just like any parent recognizes it. It’s not just setting a high bar, it’s supporting your kid, loving your kid, creating rules for your kid, expectations for your kid.”

“The experience any child goes through is the same thing we all look for. I want my kid to be loved. I want my kid to occasionally have fun and enjoy school. I want the adults who are with my kid for 13 years to be thinking intentionally about how they are developing and maturing my beautiful child to become a young adult. That’s part of the agenda, explicitly. We are humble partners of the parents in our community,” he said. “We serve our families and communities. I want parents to feel that. In schools of privilege that is a given, and that should be the given at Mastery, as well.”

 

Once schools experienced success, parents started returning to those neighborhood schools, 1,500 in all. “When students are supported and there are high expectations for kids — when there are quality relationships between adults and kids and a system of support — even the most struggling students, struggling with behavior and far behind, rise and are successful.”

Getting better at what it does, Mastery is looking to experience success that can be replicated elsewhere by other districts. He said he hopes one day a Mastery graduate will replace him as CEO.

“We are trying to make a model that’s a true public school serving all kids at scale. So it takes the entrepreneurial spirit of the charter effort — the ability to innovate and push boundaries, focus on data and systems thinking that comes from some of the most successful charter networks — and the sensibility of a neighborhood school — being deeply connected to our communities, recognizing the contexts we work in, a generation of systemic disinvestment in our communities, racial injustice — and try to pull all of those things together and create a model that really works for all kids. That’s the vision of public education: that all kids have the opportunity to participate in our democracy and duly participate in the way they want to in our society,” Scott said, all in one breath.

“The thing I’m most proud of, and the lesson of Mastery is, that it is possible. Public education can work for all kids.”

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