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Philly’s coolest charter school is high-tech heaven

“I’ve been volunteering all these years,” she said. “A board member likes to calculate how much I’ve lost in salary. I just ignore him.”

DelGuercio got a $15 million bond that bankrolled MaST Charter’s morphing into high-tech heaven, while school district funding pays operating expenses.

DelGuercio knew she was no techie, so she hired one from the start – John Swoyer, who was 22 when he arrived 10 years ago to put the “T” in MaST.

At the time, he said, the “T” consisted of one computer in every classroom. He grew that into a computer for every student.

“I’m the guy with all the crazy ideas,” said Swoyer, who was the guiding spirit behind the high-def TV studio where, he said, “Students have done everything from interviewing District Attorney Seth Williams to producing their own ‘Shark Tank.’ ”

Swoyer envisioned the computer-rich media center and the Wii gym, and fully supported his cyberspace fellow-traveler Thomas Ullom’s 3-D design-technology strategy for life.

“John understands that our kids need to be competitive but in a very safe way,” Ullom said, “where they can attempt something and fail without fear.

“I remember watching a nature show where tiger cubs were tumbling around, fighting each other in mock battle,” he said. “They were honing their skills to be aggressive hunters, getting a sense of who they were and yet, they weren’t getting hurt.'”

That, Ullom said, is what Swoyer allows him to do in 3-D design, where students create sneakers or model planes on the computer, and turn them into reality in the ovenlike 3-D printer, which physically builds them.

Then, the products are tested. If they don’t work, it’s back to the computerized drawing board.
It’s critical thinking with the wow factor of Air Jordans.

“Only one or two kids a year become product designers,” Ullom said. “But huge numbers could become business people, doctors, lawyers.”

DelGuercio said, “For someone like me who thought those big portable phones in the ’70s were a big deal, bringing John and Tom here was like opening the door and letting fresh air come in.

“The other day, John gave me a pair of Google Glasses,” she said. “I put them on and said, ‘What is this?’ He kept saying, ‘Wink! Wink!’ I said, ‘Wink about what?’ He said, ‘Wink means you can take a picture.’ ”
DelGuercio laughed. “They do keep you young,” she said. “I feel like I’m in ‘Star Trek’ half the time.”
MaST parents are in concerned-parent paradise.

John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, whose two daughters have attended MaST Charter for six years, said one of his girls “was struggling and borderline failing in Catholic school” before transferring.

“I had her in tutoring all over the city,” McNesby said. “I had private tutors come in. And she just wasn’t getting it. My wife and I were pulling our hair out.”

When his daughter got into MaST Charter, McNesby said, “her whole attitude went from not wanting to pick up a book to really wanting to go to school. Now, we’re talking about college.”

McNesby credits MaST Charter’s small classes, one-on-one interactions and total immersion in high-tech learning.

“The days of copy books and pencils and stuff are gone,” McNesby said. “Now you’re doing everything on a smartphone and an iPad. Some of the technology in there, I never even knew existed. They’re always thinking five years ahead. They’re way beyond state of the art.”

©2014 the Philadelphia Daily News. Visit the Philadelphia Daily News at www.philly.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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