by Lou Mancinelli

Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s a cliché sometimes offered as advice for overcoming a difficult situation.

But for Chestnut Hill resident Scott Gordon, CEO and founder of Germantown’s The Mastery School – perhaps more familiar as the man whose institution was granted $1 million this September on the Oprah Winfrey show – to sweat the small stuff is what he wanted.

Ten years ago, Gordon, a product of the Yale University graduate program, was running a company in the private sector, training individuals for work in the home-care industry when he decided he wanted to work with younger people.

Gordon connected with a group of educators who developed the Mastery model, designed to help all students learn the academic and personal skills they need to succeed in higher education, to compete in the global economy and to pursue their dreams. Their application for a grant to turn around a Philadelphia School District school was accepted. And so, the first Mastery campus, Lenfest, was founded in Center City.

Since then, the Mastery organization has grown to seven charter schools in the Philadelphia area and has been recognized in USA Today and talked about in speeches by President Barack Obama.

Six of those seven schools are “turnaround” schools, meaning low-performing Philadelphia School District Schools. According to the Mastery website, after Mastery assumed management of each turnaround school, test scores at the schools increased an average of 52 percentage points a subject in every grade, while violence dropped 80 percent. The school’s motto is “Excellence. No excuses.”

By small stuff, Gordon refers to all aspects of education, from curriculum to scouring the nation for superior teachers, to creating a school atmosphere that inspires learning, to having clean lavatories and healthier food. In the past, the atmosphere in failing schools was often chaotic.

Gordon, who once worked as a substitute teacher, founded Mastery along with other educators and educational advocates including Deborah Stern, and modeled its mission in some respects after private schools.

“Often schools focus on curriculum, but the thing that sets Mastery apart is we focus on the ways adults work,” said Gordon, a busy man in a brief telephone interview early in November conducted from his car. “The idea behind Mastery is to have great teachers.”

Gordon said staff at Mastery schools know the material they want their students to absorb from the time students enter as kindergarteners through the time they graduate from high school as young women and men, some old enough to vote.

Every six weeks, staff members congregate without students to discuss the development of their students. It’s a time to “plan and re-plan,” according to Gordon. If faculty members think a child might benefit from extra help after school or additional emotional support, these annual meetings provide the chance for teachers to discuss those possibilities and to develop plans to address the issues.

The teachers and staff at Mastery Charter Schools prepare their students for higher education, Gordon said. Students in high school participate in internships.

One critique of the models of charter schools like Mastery is their pay system, which rewards faculty members based on criteria like the performance of their students and the quality of the teachers’ work. Gordon explained that Mastery staff set academic and social goals for their students, and peer-review contributes to the way teachers are evaluated.

“You can design a good system or you design a bad system,” Gordon said. “Teachers get a bonus based on the school as a whole. We send the message it’s a team effort.”