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Ackerman hears from parents – about everything but contracting controversy

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The past few weeks have been abuzz with discussion of reports in the Inquirer that Superintendent Arlene Ackerman improperly awarded a $7.5 million contract to a minority-owned firm.

But the dozens of parents who braved snow and slippery roads Thursday evening to attend a parent roundtable with the superintendent were not there to question Ackerman about the contracting controversy. Rather, they vented their frustration with everything from unresponsive school staff to leaky school buildings to a child’s dismissal from her school’s cheerleading squad.

“I’m tired of being disrespected,” said Phillip Aiken, 49, a parent of two children at Morrison Elementary School who came to tell Ackerman of his dissatisfaction with how he has been treated as a volunteer there. “Treat me like an adult and respect what I do.”

“I will personally look into it,” said Ackerman, promising Aiken that she would call him directly.

For well over two hours, Ackerman listened to the concerns of parents, most of whom were focused on day-to-day worries about their children’s schools.

During her introductory remarks to the crowd of about 150 adults and 90 children assembled in the auditorium of the Promise Academy at Clemente Middle School in North Philadelphia, though, Ackerman touched on the contracting controversy.

“We have to make sure there is fairness within the community,” she said. “Everybody needs the opportunity to share in the economic growth of this school system. We’re trying to have a level playing field.

Ackerman also used her remarks to highlight the changes at Clemente, one of six chronically low-performing schools that was converted this year to a District-run Promise Academy as part of the Renaissance Schools initiative.

After accepting a gift of roses from Clemente Principal Ed Penn and some of his students, Ackerman took time to introduce a group of 7th and 8th graders who had given her a tour of the building.

Each of the children said their goal was to attend Harvard University, one of Ackerman’s alma maters.

“I just wanted you to get a look at what can happen when we dream big,” Ackerman told the audience. “This school is really on the move. One parent asked me, ‘Why can’t all schools be Promise Academies?’ And I agree with her. Why can’t every school be like [Clemente]?”

But by and large, the dialogue skirted Ackerman’s big reform initiatives, focusing instead on individualized education plans, afterschool programs, and curricula.

“When did teaching go from teaching to just preparing kids for the [state] PSSA [exam]?” a parent from Hackett Elementary School in Kensington asked Ackerman. “My kids are only being taught what’s on the next test.”

The parent roundtable, the second of five scheduled for this year, was combined with the last of a series of “phase one” community engagement meetings intended to inform the public about the District’s facilities master planning process, through which the District plans to “right-size” the District’s facilities to address the system’s 45,000 unused seats. School closings are anticipated.

Though most of the parents in attendance seemed to have come for the opportunity to talk with Ackerman, many jumped at the chance to share their insights about “what should be in all of our schools.”

Aiken, for one, had a laundry list of items he was ready to share, including “school administrations that are sensitive to teachers and students” and “even heating throughout the building.”

The superintendent’s next parent roundtable is scheduled for February at a location to be determined. The schedule for phase two of the facilities master planning process is still being developed.

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