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‘More collaboration. No intimidation.’

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

Braving a bitter wind on Broad Street, a diverse and vocal crowd of hundreds of demonstrators tried to send a message to District officials Friday – they’re tired of being excluded from important decisions and angry that they see the District squelching dialogue about its plans instead of encouraging it.

The protest action at District headquarters Friday follows a series of student walkouts and heated community meetings this month in response to District proposals to radically overhaul 18 schools as part of its Renaissance Schools plan.

A series of speakers – teachers, students, parents, and other activists – addressed the shivering but boisterous crowd, which extended along the sidewalk outside 440 N. Broad Street. Most called out the District for a series of decisions regarding school overhauls on which they say there was no opportunity for community input. Several of the speakers exhorted the crowd to raise their voices so that Superintendent Ackerman and others inside might hear them.

"We deserve the right to stand up, express our opinions, and be heard in a democratic forum," said David Kirui, a second-year English teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, where many students and staff are unhappy about being named a "Renaissance Match" school. King is slated to be turned over to an outside manager, most likely as a charter school, and teachers at the school will be force-transferred.

Kirui was one of several speakers who also addressed concerns that protesting students and teachers are being targeted by the District.

"I challenge the School District to live up to the democratic ideals of our nation and let its constituents speak out and be heard without fear," he told the crowd.

Kirui quoted one of his students, frustrated about year after year of upheaval at King, as saying, "It’s like we’re guinea pigs or something."

"They deserve better and we can do better," said Kirui.

The crowd chanted,"More collaboration. No intimidation," and "We deserve a choice, we deserve a voice!"

Two of the speakers – student Maurice Johnson and English teacher Hope Moffett – were from Audenried High School, where a plan to convert the school to a charter managed by the community development group Universal Companies has sparked resistance.

Moffett, 25, was taken out of her classroom last week and later charged with endangering her students’ "safefy and welfare," following her involvement in a series of protests, but she has continued to speak out while she spends days in an administrative building awaiting a hearing.

Johnson, a junior and a student of Moffett’s, summarized the demonstrators’ demands and said the District was using disciplinary threats to intimidate teachers as well as protesting students at schools like West Philadelphia and King.

He also challenged the "failing" label put on his school.

"They call us failures without giving us a chance to even try, without showing us adequate data to back up these decisions they are making," he said.

Organizers of the event, from the Teacher Action Group, read a statement of solidarity from Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan, who said he was unable to attend. The union had urged its members to participate.

The turnout was more than 500, according to organizers. The largest contingent appeared to be teachers, but significant numbers of parents and students joined in as well.

The call to the rally challenged the District to address three main concerns:

  • "Give students, parents, teachers and community members a legitimate role in helping to decide the direction of school reform.
  • "Stop intimidating teachers and students.
  • "Have a transparent process of school change that is grounded in actual data, a space for open dialogue and questioning, and proof that the proposed turnaround models actually work."

School District spokesperson Jamilah Fraser commented afterward that District officials "have their listening caps on," adding, "We are not trying to intimidate anyone."

"We understand there’s a major concern out there, that people want to know more" about the plans for the Renaissance Schools, she said. Fraser promised the District would continue to meet with students, parents, and staff to listen and provide further details of what the changes at the schools will look like.

In a prepared statement, the District said that "emotions are running high in the face of the changes being made to the operation of our schools, but we are confident that the positive results generated after implementation will be met with welcome." The statement also encouraged participation in upcoming public meetings about Renaissance Schools and possible school closings and promised "an honest dialogue."