This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Despite an avalanche of criticism, Philadelphia Superintendent of Schools Arlene Ackerman remains adamant that exiled Audenried High teacher Hope Moffett should be fired for “poor judgment” that jeopardized the lives of her students.
“The issue for the District has never been about [Moffett’s] First Amendment rights,” said Ackerman. “We believe that Ms. Moffett, in her zeal to help children understand they have a right to protest and voice their opinions, crossed the line.”
During an extensive interview with the Notebook on Tuesday, Ackerman acknowledged that others might see the District’s treatment of the 25-year-old Moffett as heavy-handed, describing it as “arguable” whether her actions warranted termination.
But the superintendent made no apologies.
“As far as I’m concerned, when you endanger the welfare of children, you’ve got to take the disciplinary action that comes with it,” said Ackerman.
The District alleges that without notifying parents, Moffett provided students with public transportation tokens and encouraged them to leave school and travel to District headquarters, over three miles away, to protest the planned conversion of Audenried into a charter.
Moffett, an outspoken critic of the charter conversion plan, denies organizing the February 15 protest, a contention supported by many of the students who participated. She has, however, acknowledged providing tokens to a student leader that morning.
The walkout at Audenried was just one of a series of protests by students and teachers against the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative in recent weeks. Ackerman left no doubt as to whom she considers responsible.
“Absolutely,” she responded when asked whether resistance to her plans is being driven by teachers. “The initial pushback always comes from the teachers and their influence with children.”
Her message to disaffected teachers at potential Renaissance schools?
“Don’t hold the school back from dramatic change in the lives of young people.”
Next Tuesday, The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) will argue in federal court that the District is violating Moffett’s First Amendment rights and seeking to intimidate all teachers by pushing for her termination. Moffett, a Teach for America alumna, is in her third year at Audenried.
Ackerman, arguing passionately that her reform agenda is what the city needs, described as “just noise” the uproar over Moffett and the escalating complaints that the District is not giving communities a real voice in the futures of their schools.
“Whatever we do to make [schools] better, I believe people need to get on board,” said Ackerman. “The District has decided that these schools will be charter schools.”
‘I was praying nothing would happen’
Tuesday’s interview, observed by three superintendents-in-training who are shadowing Ackerman as part of their preparation at the Broad Superintendents Academy in Los Angeles, took place in Ackerman’s third floor office in District headquarters at 440 North Broad Street.
Ackerman said she was in the building when the call from Audenried’s principal came in on the morning of February 15. She described a scene of mounting panic among the District’s highest officials.
“Had you been there to feel the anxiety, had you had to listen to the principal on the other end who was beside herself because she couldn’t account for 53 of her students, you would understand how dire the situation was,” she said.
It was during that “frantic” phone call that Ackerman first learned that a teacher had provided students with tokens to leave school without parental consent.
“I actually was praying that nothing would happen to those young people,” she said. “We were terrified, for about 45 minutes, waiting for these young people to come.”
District staffers waited outside to meet the students, who were accompanied by longtime community activist Charles Reeves, the grandfather of an Audenried student who has said he organized and planned the protest. Towards the end of the rally, some of the leaders of the group – including Reeves – were invited to meet with senior members of Ackerman’s team, including Assistant Superintendent Penny Nixon.
Not long after, the students, many of whom rejected the District’s offer of a school bus, were eventually sent back to Audenried on the same public transportation by which they had arrived, this time with teachers who had traveled from the school to accompany them back.
“Had a child been hurt or killed, people would have been saying ‘fire [Moffett] immediately,’” said Ackerman. “Because if the worst-case scenario happens, there is no excuse.”
The federal complaint filed by the PFT indicates that Moffett gave the students tokens without knowing how they would be used. But Ackerman dismissed that notion.
“[Moffett] spent the last couple of days helping the kids make signs. Everybody in the school knows it, including the principal,” said Ackerman. “You spend a day or two getting prepared for the protest, and then you give young people tokens the morning of the protest, and you say you didn’t know? I don’t think so.”
‘Don’t hold the school back’
Ackerman was firm in her belief that teachers looking out for their own interests are behind the unrest at the recently designated Renaissance schools across the city.
“The conversation [from teachers] is not about ‘how do we change the school so these young people will get a better education?’ It’s about ‘we’re making progress’ or ‘I want to stay here with my students’,” said Ackerman.
But parents, she said, voice no such concerns once the District makes its case to them directly.
“When we show parents what it can be, there’s a whole different conversation that happens,” said Ackerman.
Ackerman grew exasperated when asked about the objections from parents and community members who say they want to be involved in making big decisions about their schools – not just consulted after the fact.
“If we argue about who’s been included in the decision to turn this school around, about Ms. Moffett’s First Amendment rights, and [meanwhile] we have thousands of young people failing, it seems to me that these are the wrong arguments,” said Ackerman.
Last year, she said, there was similar pushback at many of the first group of 13 Renaissance schools.
“Believe me, those schools that went through the process said, ‘we don’t know how you got the data’ [and] ‘we’re doing better’,” said Ackerman.
“[But] I say look at those 13 schools [now]. Talk to the students in those schools, talk to their parents. There is not one complaint,” she said.
Whatever obstacles arise, Ackerman was clear that she will not be deterred from the path she has set forth.
“This Renaissance process has not been one that people have embraced easily, at any school,” she acknowledged. “It’s their school, and it’s all they know.
“[But] all of this other stuff is of no concern to me. As long as I’m fighting for these young people, they’re going to be OK."
A version of this story also appeared on WHYY/NewsWorks. That piece includes a radio segment.