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July 10, 2014, 3:06 pm

Masterman students ‘dare to be excellent’

The Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School sets the bar of excellence in the School District of Philadelphia with test scores at the highest level within the Pennsylvania System of Statewide Assessment. It is an accolade that both the middle school and high school do not take lightly.

Their goal is “Dare to Be Excellent” and Masterman’s principal, Marjorie Neff, continually encourages her students to keep pushing themselves. Neff has been leading the school for the past six years and oversaw President Barack Obama’s visit to Masterman last year. He delivered the televised annual Back to School address at the school.

“It’s been fantastic. I was an elementary principal for 10 years, so it was a big adjustment for me to move and work with middle grade students and high school students, but I have a tremendous, tremendous staff here. The kids and the families are just amazing to work with,” Neff said.

Neff acknowledged that it was daunting for her when she began her tenure at the college preparatory school.

“It was somewhat intimidating. I came from a very small elementary school with only 300 students and Masterman has a fine reputation. I think what I knew going in is that I’m not as smart as, nor will I ever be as smart as, many of the students here or the staff,” she said. “But I brought experiences as an administrator that I knew could support them. I was excited about the opportunity to support academically really talented kids to see what they could achieve.”

The past week saw Masterman welcome prospective parents for an open house program. The highly competitive school even has their own eighth-graders reapply for admission into Masterman’s high school.

“It’s a very rigorous, fast moving classroom experience for kids and so it’s not for the faint at heart,” she said.

“… this school is specifically designed to meet the needs of kids who show academic talent. So, we’re able to accelerate the curriculum. So, maybe kids who weren’t moving as quickly as they could in their previous school are now challenged to do more.”

Masterman has a relationship with Community College of Philadelphia, which is directly across the street from the school. A class of 21 seniors takes a high-level math course at the college. The ability of the students has enabled the teachers to do more in their classrooms.

“Many of the kids, they’re proficient students, but that doesn’t mean they have the same level of interest or the same level of support or challenges — but for the most part, they’re all good at being students. They know what that means. They know how to stay organized which is a challenge,” Brent Gray said.

“You spend so much of your teaching life thinking about that — but you don’t have to think about it as much here. So, you have to think more about which content they’re really absorbing, and ‘how do I go from here?’”

Gray is also in his sixth year at Masterman and teaches science and math.

“It’s all driven by the kids. They will pull you as fast as you can go,” Gray said.

“It’s the best place ever.”

John Lee has taught at Masterman for 21 years and gave credit to the students for his endurance and enthusiasm.

“I really like teaching and the kids make me feel young. I’m 63 now and still feeling like 40,” Lee said. “The students are so enlightening.”

Genielle Parham, in her fourth year as a science teacher, echoed the sentiments.

“As a teacher, I find it refreshing because instead of having to deal with a lot of discipline, you actually get to teach. I get to communicate to my students about my love of science,” Parham said. “As a school, [we have] great kids, great staff; just a great community. We really are a family and I feel very blessed to be here.”

However, just like the other schools in the district, Masterman has been dealt the same budget woes.

“As are many of the Philadelphia schools, we are subject to the same budget cuts all of the schools are subjected to. It means that the class sizes are a little bit bigger than they were last year,” Neff said. “It means that the range of courses that we were able to offer last year are fewer than they were before. The dual enrollment opportunities are much more limited this year.”

She gave an example: “The district just recently informed us that they couldn’t support middle school athletics centrally except for football and field hockey, neither of which we have here for middle school,” Neff said. “So, I’m trying to figure out, within the confines of our very limited budget, how I’m going to continue our six middle school sports.”

Nonetheless, Neff was insistent that the cuts would not lower the school’s bar of excellence in not just academia, but the whole student. She stressed that they would dare to do what they are capable of.

“We’re looking forward to another great year,” Neff said.