The blacktop playground behind Harrity Elementary School in West Philadelphia Wednesday morning was teeming with parents and children waiting for classroom assignments and a chance to meet the teachers.
Bill Crawford stood along the schoolyard fence with his video camera rolling, recording son Zaire's first day as a third grader and the first day the school was run by Mastery Charter Schools.
"It's a new day," Crawford said with a smile. "I know it's going to be better than it was last year. I know my son's going to learn."
The changes Mastery is making at Harrity are not only high stakes for Crawford's son but also represent the biggest test yet for the local nonprofit, which has won kudos from President Obama for boosting students' academic performance and developing their interpersonal skills.
In just over three months, Mastery not only doubled its schools to six, it hired and trained teachers. And in under a month, it refurbished three buildings.
Mastery is one of four charter operators converting seven low-performing district schools into Renaissance schools this school season as part of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's Imagine 2014 initiative.
In addition to Harrity, which has 850 students from kindergarten through eighth grade at its campus at 5601 Christian St., Mastery is turning two other elementary schools into charters: Mann in West Philadelphia and Smedley in Frankford. Wednesday was the first day for all three. Altogether, they registered 420 more students than attended last year.
All Renaissance schools will receive regular charter school payments from the district: $8,708 per student, and $18,883 for those in special education.
Mastery, which has operated a charter high school since 2001, has received national recognition for its success in turning around three formerly troubled district middle schools.
Mastery aims to prepare students for college with a strict behavior code and a rigorous curriculum that includes taking personal responsibility and developing interpersonal skills.
The model includes a longer school day and a longer school year. Tutoring and Saturday sessions are required for those who struggle. All students must show "mastery" by earning a grade of at least 76 percent before advancing.
George Tilghman, chairman of the Harrity advisory council that selected Mastery, said parents were impressed by the group's program and track record.
"You could see from the data that at the schools they took over, the violence went down and the standards, as far as students' reading and math abilities, went up," said Tilghman, whose daughter Shamya is in fourth grade.
Parents said they were intrigued by Mastery's promise of smaller classes, Spanish and arts instruction, and an orderly and safe learning environment.
Tilghman said his daughter was assaulted several times in third grade.
"There was a lot of violence," he said. "The district was really unresponsive to it as far as I was concerned. . . . They knew they had problems, but they didn't know how to solve them or correct them. A change was needed."
Mastery is used to big challenges. But when the School Reform Commission decided May 12 to give Mastery three new schools, the organization faced its most ambitious assignment yet: It had never run an elementary school. And, instead of converting one school at a time as it had done in the past, Mastery was tackling three.
All the Renaissance operators had three months to ready their schools. But with three schools, Mastery had the most to do: It had to hire and train legions of new staffers and be ready to greet 2,000 elementary students Wednesday.
"We have doubled in size in terms of students and staff," Scott Gordon, Mastery's chief executive officer, said. "That is daunting."
He said the organization, which he founded with support from area business leaders, was able to pull off the feat because it gambled that it would be selected, planned ahead, and lined up more than $4.5 million from private donors and foundations to help underwrite the expansion costs for the elementary schools, including building improvements, classroom furniture, computers, science labs, books, and supplies.
Until now, Mastery's focus has been middle and high school grades at its original Lenfest campus in Center City; as well as Thomas in South Philadelphia; Shoemaker in West Philadelphia; and Pickett in Germantown.
"We made a gamble that we were going to be doing elementary schools, and that gamble paid off," Gordon said. "We're very prepared."
In spring 2009, he said, Mastery began working with Achievement First, a network of charter schools in Connecticut and New York that focuses on academic achievement, to develop an elementary curriculum.
Even with the elementary schools, Mastery's primary goal remains preparing students for college.
"We're going to be talking college to kindergartners," Gordon promised.
Months before receiving district approval, Mastery began recruiting teachers and staff for the schools it hoped to open. The organization, which received 20 resumés for each spot, hired 214 employees, including 29 Teach for America corps members.
Selection took months. Mastery staff conducted 857 in-person interviews and 1,800 phone interviews, Gordon said. And between February and August, staff observed 423 applicants teach sample lessons to gauge their classroom skills.
But Gordon said the most important criteria were that applicants believed students can achieve and were committed to helping them perform at grade level and above in three years.
The teachers who made the cut, he said, came from everywhere from West Philadelphia to California and from as far away as the West African nation of Mali.
The teachers tend to be younger than in district schools, but Mastery sought instructors with experience.
"People who are attracted to turnaround schools or Mastery, for whatever reason, tend to be teachers who are earlier in their careers," he said. "It can be scary to sign up to turn around one of Philadelphia's most struggling schools."
"All Mastery Day" on Aug. 17 drew all 417 employees to the Crystal Tea Room in the former John Wanamaker store in Center City to launch the new school year and ponder the challenges of boosting achievement at elementary schools, where three-quarters of students read below grade level.
"We want to make sure that every child touched by Mastery has a great education," Gordon told the staffers. "We have a lot of work to do together."
After a buffet of miniburgers and sandwiches paid for with private money, the afternoon turned into a pep rally with the showing of a video clip of Obama praising Mastery's success in turning around failing Philadelphia schools in a talk at the National Urban League Centennial Conference in July.
"Our president wants to sound the alarm about national competitiveness and educational inequality," Gordon told the gathering. "We're doing the nation's work."
Gordon said Mastery felt pressure to succeed at Harrity and the other elementary schools, but not because of the national attention.
"The pressure is on because 850 parents have entrusted their kids to us," Gordon said at Harrity Wednesday. "I don't want to get too sappy, but over the summer you meet all the parents. They tell you their stories about what happened to their kids. That's pressure."
Seven low-performing district schools are being converted to charters this fall by nonprofit operators.
Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania: Stetson Middle School, 3200 B St.; first day, Sept. 8
Mastery Charter Schools: Harrity, 5601 Christian St.; Mann, 5376 W. Berks St.; Smedley, 1790 Bridge St.; first day, Sept. 1.
Universal Cos: Bluford, 5900 Baltimore Ave.; Daroff, 5630 Vine St.; first day, Sept. 7.
Young Scholars Charter School: Douglass School, 2118 W. Norris St.; first day, Aug. 31.
Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or firstname.lastname@example.org.