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Universal makes its case on Audenried

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

Almost two months after the School District first announced its plans to convert Audenried High School into a charter, Universal Companies President and CEO Abdur-Rahim Islam finally got to share his vision Saturday for how Universal intends to overhaul the school.

“We have the capacity to not only improve the education scores, but change the neighborhood,” said Islam, who said Universal will bring a health clinic, day care center, and extensive internship opportunities for students to the school as part of its efforts to turn the entire community into a Promise Neighborhood modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone.

“We will embrace every child in this community,” he said.

But many of the roughly 100 people in the audience, frustrated that the Universal takeover was presented to them as a fait accompli, remained focused instead on the School District’s process for deciding Audenried’s future.

“From what I read, [the plan for the school] sounds good,” Jim Helman of the Grays Ferry Partnership, a coalition of seven community groups in the area, said after the meeting. “[But] I think the School District went about this conversion to a charter school all wrong, Instead of consulting with the community, they’re now informing the community of something they already decided.”

Last month, during a first informational meeting at the school that did not include representatives from Universal, District officials drew harsh criticism for offering little in the way of data or details. This time, Islam and District Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery presented a much clearer picture of what Audenried will look like next year, including “individualized academic and career plans” for every student and a District-run career and technical education program that will include culinary arts and diesel programs.

“What we’re trying to do is [ensure] young people don’t fail to graduate,” said Nunery.

But the overwhelming majority of questions were about the District’s decision-making process. Islam and Nunery responded by stressing that the voices of students, parents and community members will be crucial in refining Universal’s plan for the school.

“It sounds as though there’s not enough buy-in,” said Nunery. “Not enough people know what the plan is. I think what you’re asking for is the chance to participate in [the development of Universal’s plan], and we should facilitate that. We’ll keep talking.”

Audrey Martin, a resident of Grays Ferry, said that Nunery was missing the point.

“We don’t want this,” said Martin, referring to the charter conversion plan itself. “We want you to keep these teachers. These kids are close to them, and that’s what makes a difference.”

As part of the District’s “Promise Neighborhood Partnership” model for turning around Audenried and Edwin Vare Middle, all of the current teachers will be force-transferred, then given the opportunity to re-apply to work for Universal – minus their union benefits. They will not be guaranteed a job in another school in the District, which might need to lay off some teachers due to a massive drop in state and federal aid.

“The District is forcing us to make an unfair decision. We have to give up our career in the School District if we want to stay with the school we love,” said Brynn Keller, 24, a second-year Audenried English teacher.

Again and again, members of the audience spoke to the need to preserve the relationships between Audenried’s students and current teachers.

“If the children are satisfied with their teachers, you need to make some arrangement to have them stay here. It’s as simple as that,” said community activist Charles Reeves, whose granddaughter attends the school.

At one point, Nunery seemed to acknowledge the oft-stated concern, saying “we will make that change.”

But District officials later clarified that Nunery was not saying that the reconstitution of Audenried’s staff would be reconsidered. “Universal will be making the staffing decisions for the school,” said District spokesperson Jamilah Fraser.

Arguing that different groups had different concerns about the plan, District officials initially tried to organize four simultaneous presentations in different rooms of the school – one each for community members, parents, school staff and students.

Some parents did attend a separate session led by Associate Superintendent for Instruction Penny Nixon and other representatives from Universal.

A few said they were concerned their kids are not being prepared for college. At the same time, they objected to the characterization of the school as “failing.” One parent said it was news to her that the school – reopened three years ago in a brand-new building – was doing so poorly.

“We’re not saying [Audenried] is terrible, but we are saying we need to accelerate the academic progress for our kids. It’s not to belittle or put anybody down, but to accelerate progress,” Nixon explained.

But a group of teachers and students insisted on sitting in on the larger serssion for community members, and District officials relented. Once inside, some of those teachers repeatedly interrupted Nunery and Islam to question the District data used to identify Audenried as a chronically failing school. They also questioned whether it was realistic that Universal, which has never run a high school, can develop an effective model by next September.

“You can’t start planning in March, and [Universal] is not even doing that – they’re just saying ‘we’ll make a plan,’” said Keller. “That works for a community, but not a school.”

As the teachers and students aggressively pursued their questions, some parents and community members grew exasperated.

“Can we please hear from the community?,” asked Grays Ferry resident Earl Burton, who said later he was worried primarily about Universal’s plans for housing developments in the neighborhood.

Exiled Audenried English teacher Hope Moffett, an outspoken critic of the charter conversion plan who the District has moved to terminate, was one of those who encroached on the community meeting.

Moffett did not speak publicly, but several other speakers came to her defense.

“A person shouldn’t be banned or fired because they disagree,” Anna Wiggins, the mother of a popular teacher and coach at Audenried, told Nunery. “Something’s wrong with that. We’re in the United States of America.”

On Thursday, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers filed a federal lawsuit to halt the termination proceedings, arguing that the District had violated Moffett’s First Amendment rights and was attempting to intimidate all teachers from criticizing District policies. District officials say they intend to fire Moffett not for speaking out, but for endangering the lives of students by providing them with transportation tokens to leave school and attend a protest rally without parental consent.

“It’s not about First Amendment rights,” Fraser told reporters. “We had several parents who called [us] terrified that they didn’t know where their children were.”

U.S. District Judge Thomas O’Neill, Jr. will hear arguments from both sides this Wednesday before deciding whether to grant an injunction that would put a stop to the District’s termination proceedings against Moffett.

Also on Wednesday, the School Reform Commission will be voting to approve the suitability of the matches between six other Renaissance schools and outside charter operators. District officials confirmed last week, however, that the SRC will not be asked to vote on the plan to match Audenried and Vare with Universal, saying that “it’s a different model.” The School Reform Commission is currently slated to vote to authorize Universal’s charters for both schools sometime in April.

In the meantime, Nunery and Islam both said there will be further meetings to involve the community in shaping the details of Universal’s plans, though no dates have yet been set.

For some who attended Saturday’s meeting, however, that may not be enough.

Said Helman of the Grays Ferry Partnership: “I don’t like the process, and I’m not persuaded that the solution to any problems [at the school] is conversion to a charter.”

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