As state elected officials take up the charter school and overall education reforms found in Senate Bill 1115 — a bill that would drastically alter the funding of both traditional brick-and-mortar public schools, and that of charter and cyber-charter schools, as well as affecting the funding of special education programs — Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary Ron Tomalis last week visited Mathematics, Science and Technology (MaST) Community Charter School to get a snapshot of charter schools in the region.
The bill, sponsored last year by Senate Majority Whip Pat Browne and co-sponsored by more than two dozen state senators, does several things, including amending the Public School Code, establishing a Special Education Funding Commission, and — most importantly to charter school operators — also revises charter school provisions while altering the method of reimbursement to the charter schools by the commonwealth.
The bill was not passed during the most recent legislative session, and by last status, SB 1115 has been referred to the Rules and Executive Nominations Committee, where Browne serves as committee vice chair.
With that as a backdrop, Tomalis visited MaST with the idea of seeing a charter school in action.
“I look forward to experiencing the exciting learning opportunities available at MaST Community Charter School,” Tomalis said on the eve of his visit. “As public schools, charter schools serve as quality alternatives to traditional public schools for thousands of Pennsylvania students and their families.”
MaST was prepared for the visit by the education secretary; in fact, MaST has been ready for the past several years for just this moment, said MaST CEO John Swoyer, who mentioned that initial consideration for Tomalis’ visit was born out of a chance encounter with Tomalis during a panel discussion with the Urban Land Institute.
“A [MaST board member] had a conversation with a member from the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, which was looking to replicate good charter schools that have a strong background of developing a good academic program, and thought MaST would be a good choice, since every year, we push the bar of science and technology tools,” Swoyer said. “We think those are the reasons why Tomalis chose MaST.”
MaST, at 1800 E. Byberry Road, is a K–12 school with a waiting list of 3,000. According to the Pa. Department of Education’s Bureau of Special Education, MaST currently enrolls 1,244 students — 147 of whom are enrolled in MaST’s Special Education program.
But it is MaST’s continued focus on technology and its students’ frequent, above-average testing which has made it one of the area’s most sought after schools for parents.
“I’ve been here since [MaST was founded in] 2004, and I’d say the school has always focused on kids and using up-and-coming learning tools. Everything the board and teachers do here — extending programs and building well-rounded students — tie into our academics,” Swoyer said. “We’ve made AYP, and the students have shown a real sense of ownership of their school building. Our kids come in kindergarten, and stay with us until they graduate. Last year, we had a 100 percent graduation rate.
“Because of that strong education,” Swoyer continued, “students knew the importance of the visit and demonstrated that to Tomalis.”
Technology is a major theme at MaST. The school has created school-specific apps for Apple and Android-powered devices and provides a unique “Digital Envelope” in which students and parents can access course syllabus and material online. The school also has several tech-related clubs, including the video and astronomy groups.
According to Swoyer, excitement built for several weeks in advance of Tomalis’ visit, and it was hard to discern between “excited teacher and excited student.”
“Teachers and everyone really stepped forward and wanted to be involved,” said Swoyer, noting that several of the students took Tomalis to the video room, where students impressed him with their technical acumen during a video segment in the school’s high-definition video/audio lab. “We also showed him our virtual fitness center, where we are using the space to extend exercise and our wellness programs.
“All of the teachers were willing to give up their classrooms to the secretary,” Swoyer continued. “It was a very rare opportunity.”