- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

PHILADELPHIA (AP) | 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 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, Mr. Gingrich said outside Mastery Charter School in West Philadelphia. “I take education very, very seriously.”

Mr. Sharpton, a liberal Democrat, and Mr. Gingrich, a conservative Republican, joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the first stop of a “listening and learning” tour to find out what school strategies are working and why.

The odd couple of Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Sharpton found common ground in the concept that education is the new frontier on civil rights. President Obama has a goal of turning around 5,000 failing schools across the United States 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, children ran wild, expectations were low and teachers didn’t care about the students, or even about teaching.

“It was horrible,” said Donnell Clark, 17.

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.

Donnell 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,” Donnell 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 such as 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.

Mrs. Ackerman, who sat in on the tour, plans to pursue a “renaissance” strategy similar to one Mr. 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.

Mr. 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?” he said. “You are literally risking the lives of these kids.”

Future tour stops include New Orleans on Nov. 3 and Baltimore on Nov. 13.

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