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.
U.S. News and World Report released their “Best High Schools” state lists last week, ranking eight School District of Philadelphia high schools among the honorees in Pennsylvania, and awarding Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration school as the number one high school in Pennsylvania overall.
To determine the Best High Schools in Pennsylvania, schools were analyzed at the state level based on how students performed on state assessments. Masterman students proved to be 98 percent proficient in reading, and 100 percent proficient in math. U.S. News also recognized that Masterman students boast a 94 percent participation rate in Advanced Placement coursework and exams, and score an 83.8 on the college readiness index.
Other District schools making the list were Central High School at number 10, High School of Creative and Performing Arts at number 19, Academy at Palumbo at number 21, Bodine William W High School at number 33, Girard Academic Music Program at number 40, Carver High School Engineering & Science at number 50, and Girls High School at number 51.
This was the fourth edition of the “Best High Schools” rankings. Click here to view the complete list.
The Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School continues to set the bar for excellence high through its college preparatory curriculum for high school students and its various extra-curriculum activities.
“I’ve enjoyed my experience at Masterman,” said senior Chris Baldwin. “As a student you want to excel academically and get life experiences through people you interact with. I was fortunate to receive both here. At times it can get challenging with the workload, but it’s worth it in the end because it will help me prepare for college next fall.”
Masterman is ranked highly in the School District of Philadelphia, and is considered one of the best college-preparatory public schools in the tri-county area. The school has twice been named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. U.S. News and World Report ranked it as the top public school in Pennsylvania in 2012, and as the 61st in the nation. The school is also ranked 14 nationally in the magnet category.
“We have amazing kids that have been well-prepared in their elementary schools and our students are very dedicated and ambitious,” said principal Majorie Neff. “The level of instruction is high quality. Our teachers do their best to meet the needs of the students. This school is specifically designed to meet the needs of kids who show academic talent. So, we’re able to help them with academics through the accelerate curriculum. We take pride in helping them prepare for their future.”
Students at Masterman attain advanced levels of study in accelerated courses, including Advanced Placement in U.S. history, government, French, Spanish, French, biology, environmental science, computer science, English, calculus, statistics and music theory.
“The teachers are what helps make this school,” said senior Alex Goncharova. “There dedication makes you want to become a better student. They are always willing to help and demand the best from you. The curriculum is challenging, but it’s always helpful when you have a teacher who is willing to work with you. They want to see you succeed and achieve your dreams.”
Some students follow an even more accelerated program in Mathematics and study AP Calculus AB/BC in their junior year and take a math course at a local college in their senior year. Generally, 100 percent of the senior class attends four-year colleges.
“Not only has this school prepared me for college from an educational standpoint, but Masterman also sets the bar for its students to a level where the goals that you wish to attain increases,” said senior Rachel Hampton. “It’s nothing more important than being prepared for your future and to compete at a college level. The students here push each to get better, and the teachers make sure we are prepared for that next level. Failure is not an option, but hard work leads to success. Everyone at Masterman wants to succeed.”
Masterman offers a range of co-educational, interscholastic sports on both the varsity and junior varsity level and participates on unified teams with other schools in gymnastics and swimming. Masterman also offers many co-curricular activities including orchestra and jazz band, student government, webteam, dramatics, yearbook, newspaper, an award winning literary magazine, a nationally-ranked chess team, a championship mock trial team, and competition in academic contests.
“Masterman offers so many opportunities outside of academics, that it’s hard not to want to participate in something here,” said senior Tim Green. “That’s what makes this school so unique because, everyone here participates in something. We all have similar interests and goals. You can’t help but to grow as a student and person here. I’ve learned so much and it will be an experience in my life I will always remember.”
For senior Amirah Williams, the only way she found to inspire other students was by sharing her experiences through the various clubs she participates in. Williams teaches an art class, participates in the African American Culture Club, is a peer counselor, and president of the Hispanic and Latino Association.
“I wanted to make sure that I fully embraced my high school experience because not everyone gets as many opportunities that are offered here,” Williams said. “My opportunities are based on helping younger children; helping them realize they have options and opportunities that are there for them to help achieve their own goals. They get such a small view of the world, so I wanted to join activities that will help broaden their horizons.”
Senior Jacquee Aragon is already thinking about her future after she graduates from Masterman.
“I want to do nursing, so I’m already looking into UPenn, Drexel, and NYU,” Aragon said. “The workload at Masterman has helped me mentally prepare for workload at college. Even though my tenure here is coming to an end, I’m looking forward to applying what I learned here in my future endeavors. I’m ready for the challenge the future brings.”
Nuwar Ahmed, 18, of West Philadelphia is making more trips to the local bookstore these days since the library at her high school was closed due to cutbacks in funding.
Ahmed is a senior at Masterman High School, one of the district’s distinguished and highest performing schools. She enjoys reading books about history and science because it helps supplement her learning in other classes, but she said she and her classmates are prohibited from checking out books and barred from visiting the library unless they are attending a class that is held there.
“For me, in general, it’s lame not being able to go there,” said Ahmed who takes senior seminar class in the library, which helps students with college admissions applications. She said she doesn’t download books and would have to go out of her way to visit the nearest public library branch.
The city’s watchdog groups trace the root of the district’s latest financial woes to what they say amounts to a political slush fund, which doled out millions of dollars in discretionary state funding to certain school districts in areas represented by powerful GOP members of the Pennsylvania’s General Assembly. Republicans outnumber Democrats in both houses.
Public schools across the state, in urban and rural communities alike, are struggling to maintain programs, services and positions in the wake of deep funding cuts, said Michael Churchill, counselor for the Public Interest Law Center.
He contends the way that Pennsylvania currently funds public schools is not sufficient for school districts to fulfill its constitutional obligation of providing a “thorough and efficient” education, “given the huge disparity that exists between wealthy and poor school districts.”
“The Legislature has completely failed to meet its obligation,” Churchill said. “For too long, they have let their reluctance to raise revenue to determine what they provide schools rather than look at the needs of students.”
He sees inadequate school funding as a two-fold problem: the state’s heavy reliance on local property taxes to support schools, and elected officials who fear they will be voted out of office if they approve tax hikes in order to raise school revenue. Churchill said their worries are unfounded, pointing out polls showing public opinion is favorable toward paying higher taxes for educational purposes.
Philadelphia also saw significant population growth in the 1990s but school funding did not keep pace because it didn’t account for growth or declines in residential populations, which increased burdens on school system among other municipal services.
A legal team at the Public Interest Law Center is reviewing legal recourse to “remedy this failure” and may join forces with the Education Law Center, a statewide organization that works to improve access to quality education for children who require additional support services, including students raised in poor households or foster homes, cope with disabilities, or speak languages other than English.
The two law centers are gathering anecdotal evidence about the deteriorating school conditions in the wake of budget cuts that forced elimination and reduction of programs, services, and key positions, from secretaries and assistant principals to nurses and counselors. Widespread layoffs went into effect in June.
In Pennsylvania, more affluent communities receive less state aid because they can rely on a substantial tax base to support the local school district. But state aid is also distributed solely on the basis of enrollment, putting school districts that have higher numbers of special needs students at a disadvantage.
Most states have weighted formulas that compensate school districts that have higher numbers of students who speak multiple languages, live in low-income households, or have disabilities. It costs more money to provide programs and services for each child who requires special services and who come to school less prepared than their peers because they receive less support at home.
Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said that the Legislature stopped awarding funding to school districts with significant numbers of students who speak languages other than English, instead relying on “bogus banding of eligibility for support under the guise of the kind of things that should be in a school funding formula.”
“Cryptically written formulas” were the basis for distributing ELL grants to 21 school districts, Cooper said. And for the first time in at least 20 years, she said budget spreadsheets used to support allocations of funding had not been circulated among the House and Senate Education committees.
This was evidence in her eyes, and others, that the method of distributing school funding smacked of favoritism, was not done in a transparent manner and without consideration of how the amount of funding measured up to actual need in individual districts.
Cooper and Churchill said the culture in the legislature changed when a Republican mayor who served in Rendell’s administration was elected governor, and lawmakers reward school districts in their communities with additional funding.
For example, Reading School District, which is considered the state’s poorest, received the Pennsylvania ELL (English Language Learner Supplement) grant in 2011, along with four school districts in Lancaster, York City, Lebanon and Allentown.
However, Cooper stated that 10 other school districts, including Philadelphia, Norristown and Upper Darby, had greater need based on higher numbers, or higher percentages, of students who speak languages other than English.
Calls for comment to the governor’s office were referred to Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education who said that the state has no control over federal and local aid to schools but the commonwealth allocates school funding based on aid ratio, which takes into account the relative wealth of school districts and surrounding communities, and the personal wealth of those residents.
Eller said that urban school districts generally receive more state aid than wealthier communities because of those factors. “We reject that notion because the formula that is the law, that drives funding to schools considers market value and personal income of the local area,” he said.
A “hold harmless” clause guarantees school districts the same amount in funding as in the previous year. “Any additional dollars are driven to schools with needy populations, so I would challenge what they’re saying,” Eller said.
With Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in office, the number of school districts receiving the ELL grant jumped to eight school districts in 2012, increasing to 21 school districts in 2013. Cooper called out state lawmakers in Harrisburg who were “cherry picking” school districts that received ELL funding in order to accomplish their political agenda of increasing state aid to those communities.
Lawyers and community watchdog groups said that the system for determining school funding should be predictable, transparent and distribute money equally across all school districts with principles built-in such as fairness and consideration for giving a school district the ability to respond to extra costs that students with extra needs require.
“This is not rocket science, putting together a school funding formula,” Cooper said. “The legislature did it in 2007.”
That was under Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration, a Democrat who served from 2003-2011.
Pennsylvania is one of more than 35 states that have completed costing out studies, which, were used to “calculate the amount of funds needed to provide students with an education that meets state standards,” according to an analysis by the Federal Budget Project.
The federal government measures how evenly or unevenly funding is distributed across school districts in a state with an equity factor which is used to determine the amount of federal Title I grant awards to local school districts under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Pennsylvania had an equity factor of 18 percent, same as neighboring New Jersey, in 2009. That means that per-pupil spending by school districts vary, on average, by 18 percent from the state average. The commonwealth has one of the highest school finance inequity ratings in the country, which indicates the “most variance in funding distribution,” according to the FBP’s analysis.
Only six other states, Idaho, Massachusetts, Montana, Virginia, Illinois and Louisiana, had higher equity factor than Pennsylvania.
That translates to a difference of more than $9.5 million, either above or below the state mean, for a school district with an average size enrollment of 4,300 students.
In Philadelphia, anxiety among students and parents in increasing amid growing concern on the part of school district employees and educational advocates.
Hiram Rivera, executive director of Philadelphia Student Union, said high school seniors and upperclassmen are worried about whether enough staff members will be on hand to help them navigate the college admissions process, and younger pupils in middle school tell him that they feel an overwhelming uncertainty about school conditions in the future.
A number of students have expressed concern about whether they will continue to attend schools without adequate counseling, nursing and library staff. Parents feel powerless to help and students say they’re losing faith in adults who are in charge of running Philadelphia’s public schools.
“This normalizes poverty in a district already ravaged by deep amounts of poverty. It’s an added burden on the working people and the working poor,” Rivera said.
Whenever Julia R. Masterman School needs a hoop, the basketball team has two players capable of putting the ball in the basket. Mike Sturdivant and Gary Bryant have made some made some big shots for Masterman.
Sturdivant and Bryant are both doing a great job of scoring the basketball. They are two of the top scorers in the Public League. Sturdivant, a 5-foot-11 senior, is averaging 22.3 points a game. He’s also the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,420 points. Bryant, a 6-foot-2 senior guard, is averaging 22.6 points a game. Sturdivant and Bryant have formed quite a scoring combination.
“It’s been a lot of great players here,” Sturdivant said. “I owe a lot to my teammates, coach (John) Gannon and everybody. I’ve always been able score. I started playing when I was four. I played CPN and Little League at Sayre High School. I worked out with my dad. I would go to the gym and take 1,000 shots a day.”
Sturdivant and Bryant are no strangers to playing the game. Actually, they’ve been playing together for quite some time.
“It’s great playing with Mike,” Bryant said. “We’ve been playing together since about the fifth grade. We’ve played in the leagues together like Hank Gathers, Sonny Hill and AAU. We have good chemistry. That’s how we do the things we do together on the court.”
Sturdivant has seen Bryant develop his game over the years. Bryant has the knack of getting to his spots on the court. Sturdivant, Masterman High’s point guard, knows how to get him the basketball.
“Gary has the confidence,” Sturdivant said. “He’s going to score. He’s a great player. We’re both working hard to try to get to the playoffs.”
Sturdivant and Bryant have performed well on and off the court. They’re both interested in playing basketball in college next year.
“I’m going to work on my ballhandling,” Bryant said. “I’m going to work on my defense, too. I know the players are bigger and stronger in college. So, I’ll be working hard this summer.”
“I would like to play in college,” Sturdivant said. “I think Masterman has really prepared me for going to college. We’re not just basketball players. We’re leaders. The school keeps you well-rounded.”
Sturdivant and Bryant are headed in the right direction. Masterman will host Olney on Thursday, Jan. 24 at 3:15 p.m.