PHILADELPHIA — The Rev. Al Sharpton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich don’t agree on much, but a meeting with a group of inner-city charter school students on Tuesday left them with the same impression: There is hope for improving the U.S. education system.
“We may disagree about other issues, but this is a place where we have a common” goal, Gingrich said outside Mastery Charter School in West Philadelphia. “I take education very, very seriously.”
Sharpton, a liberal Democrat, and Gingrich, a conservative Republican, joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the first stop of a “listening and learning” tour to find out which school strategies are working and why.
The odd couple of Gingrich and Sharpton found common ground in the concept that education is the new frontier on civil rights. President Barack Obama has a goal of turning around 5,000 failing schools across the U.S. in the next five years.
At Mastery, the trio met with about a dozen 11th graders who attended the school four years earlier when it was under district management. At that time, students said, kids ran wild, expectations were low and teachers didn’t care about the students — or even about teaching.
“It was horrible,” 17-year-old Donnell Clark said.
But since 2006, the school has been run by Mastery Charter Schools, a nonprofit that now has four campuses in Philadelphia serving 2,100 students. The Shoemaker campus visited Tuesday has outperformed some of its more affluent suburban counterparts on state standardized tests.
Clark and others told the education advocates that new teachers and staff made the difference by raising the academic bar, accepting no excuses and simply caring about their students.
“Teachers actually invest their time,” Clark said.
Public education in Philadelphia is a mixture of district-run schools, schools operated by private management companies and charter schools, which are public but operate independently from the district.
It is a high-poverty system where only about half the students can read and write at grade level. But bright spots like Mastery make Superintendent Arlene Ackerman optimistic that the district is “in a breakthrough mode,” and that a combination of reforms may be the best way to help students.
Ackerman, who sat in on the tour, plans to pursue a “renaissance” strategy similar to one Duncan did when he was schools chief in Chicago. Philadelphia’s first cohort of “renaissance schools,” to be identified later this fall, will be essentially shut down in June and reopened next fall with new staffs and new academic focus.
Gingrich, Sharpton and Duncan also visited Delaplaine McDaniel Elementary School in Philadelphia, a high-poverty school run by the district that met federal education standards for several consecutive years.
Gingrich said both schools give him “a sense of great hope” for bettering the U.S. education system, which lags many of its international counterparts.
“If we have absolute proof it can be done, why aren’t we doing it?” Gingrich said. “You are literally risking the lives of these kids.”
When Mastery students talked about teachers not caring, Sharpton said he was reminded of his own school days. And hearing that achievement changed when expectations did “tells me a lot about what we have to do nationally on education reform,” he said.
Besides visiting classrooms, the group also had closed meetings with teachers, administrators and parents, where they were expected to discuss Obama’s education reform initiatives.
Future tour stops include New Orleans on Nov. 3 and Baltimore on Nov. 13.