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Hope, we hardly knew ye

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

By Benjamin Herold and Dale Mezzacappa

"All we ever wanted was an apology."

That was the head-scratching reason given by School District officials when asked why they suddenly changed their hard-line stance that a young gadfly teacher deserved to be fired. The surprise reversal came during a mediation session with a federal magistrate last Friday, when the District and teachers union agreed to return Hope Moffett to her classroom after nearly a month in “teacher jail.”

Up to that point, the “Hope Held Hostage” drama had been steadily escalating for weeks.

At each step of the way, the audacious Audenried High English teacher brazenly went public, sharing confidential District documents and giving the media unfiltered access to her passionately held view that her school is not “failing.”

Each of Moffett’s actions seemed to provoke an increasingly harsh response from District leadership, which eventually launched an aggressive campaign to convince a skeptical public that Moffett needed to be fired because she had endangered her students.

The normally quiescent teachers’ union sprang into action, filing a federal lawsuit accusing the District of violating Moffett’s First Amendment rights and attempting to intimidate teachers who dared criticize their policies.

A showdown in federal court had been scheduled for this past Tuesday. It promised to be great theater – in her brash idealism, Moffett had became a symbol of, well, hope for the thousands who are increasingly fed up with Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s perceived intolerance of dissent and who are ever-more desperate to have a meaningful voice in the future of their schools.

But all that was thrown out the window with last Friday’s settlement, which even Moffett describes as “anti-climactic.”

“Everything seems absolutely normal, which is strange because I know that it isn’t,” she said Thursday night, reflecting on her first week back in the classroom.

“Saving my job was never my end goal. I have spent this week feeling like the sacrifice was not worth it,” added Moffett, who doubts the whole saga will impact the District’s forthcoming decisions about the future of Audenried.

District officials, meanwhile, have offered no such introspection. They want nothing more than to move on – and to stop being asked to explain a campaign that has seemed from the outset to be as misguided as it was made up on the fly.

“Moffett did something wrong, and the fact that she acknowledged that was what we were looking for from the very beginning,” said District spokesperson Jamilah Fraser.

Wait, what?

Weeks of refusing to budge. Countless senior staff hours devoted to crisis management. A disastrous press briefing at which Assistant Superintendent of Schools Penny Nixon stood firmly on patently false information about who was teaching Moffett’s students. The stunning statement from Fraser that the District had built much of its case for termination on secret accusations by anonymous sources. A sitdown interview in which Ackerman passionately laid out the argument that Moffett had endangered the lives of children. A scheduled appearance in federal court.

All that was just District posturing to secure an apology from a 25-year-old third-year teacher?

More importantly, securing that apology was worth leaving Moffett’s 106 students with a series of substitute teachers for almost a month, right before they took the PSSA exam?

Well, said Fraser, the case will also provide a “strong reminder” to other teachers about the importance of getting parental permission slips.

OK, then. Teachers, you got that?

More likely, the District never anticipated that Moffett would be so dogged in getting her story out and never imagined the flood of public support that would flow her way. Once the tide was irreversibly in Moffett’s favor, battling over a teacher’s future was not worth jeopardizing the District’s larger wars to “turn around” struggling schools, even for an administration accustomed to enforcing its will in even the most mundane matters.

A full court hearing would have brought much of the palace intrigue to light. That it won’t happen is too bad for the rest of us because there are certainly differing accounts of what transpired at various points along the way.

Just days before the District’s about-face before the magistrate, Ackerman herself told a gripping tale of the morning of February 15, when a group of Audenried students left school and rode SEPTA in order to protest on the steps outside District headquarters.

Ackerman described mounting alarm among high-level District officials because the students were risking their lives on the same Broad Street subway that thousands of Philadelphia students take twice each day.

“We get a frantic call in my office from the principal saying, ‘There are students who have left the building who have come down to protest.’ I asked the question, ‘Well, how did they leave? Where are they?’ She didn’t know. She was frantic. We were then frantic… Had you been here 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.”

The folks over at Audenried, however, remember the morning somewhat differently.

Carol Nicolai, 55, is the secretary for Audenried Principal Terry Pearsall-Hargett. When the Notebook sought her out, she explained that she was directly involved in the school’s response to the walkout. The actual chain of events that morning, said Nicolai, included two unanswered phone calls to the regional office, an email, a couple of quick updates with mid-level managers, and finally a brief conversation between Pearsall-Hargett and someone in the office of Assistant Superintendent of Schools Nixon.

Nicolai recalled that immediately after hanging up, a decidedly un-frantic Pearsall-Hargett relayed the message from Nixon’s office to those around her.

“I was told to come get our kids off the steps.”

Sometimes, it doesn’t take a federal judge to hear the ring of truth.

There also remain competing versions of how the District handled its disciplinary action against Moffett. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said he continues to be amazed that the District removed Moffett and a colleague from the school without a written explanation, failed to inform their PFT representative along the way, and told the pair in writing to keep quiet about the whole thing.

“It was kind of scary,” said Jordan, “telling a professional don’t go to work, go to the other side of town, [and] by the way, don’t tell anybody why we’re sending you there.”

Ackerman insists that Moffett was told why she was being reassigned, if not in writing than “verbally.” In fact, she called it “crazy” to think otherwise.

Count Jordan in the “crazy” camp.

“We were giving some very, very, very serious thought about asking for a subpoena to be issued for [Ackerman] to testify under oath,” Jordan said. “We were very prepared to put on our case. I can only make the assumption that the District did not want to go through with the hearing.”

District officials, weary of the media’s pesky insistence on asking them to explain their ever-changing logic, summoned the energy to shoot down the “we didn’t want Ackerman to testify” theory.

“The District was prepared to argue this case in court if the mediation was not successful,” said spokesperson Fraser.

Can we move on now?

Before returning to school Monday, Moffett, her 15 minutes apparently running out, held a press conference at a Dunkin Donuts. Cameras captured the genuine joy of students glad to get a beloved – if a bit intense – teacher back in the classroom. Once there, Moffett read a statement acknowledging something that she adamantly maintains was not an apology. For all her zeal for truth, the one thing Moffett never made clear was whether she knew that her students intended to use the tokens she gave them to leave school and protest.

Over at 440, meanwhile, District officials were already embroiled in a new crisis at another high school, trying to explain – or not explain – yet more controversy in their Renaissance initiative.

Who would have imagined there could be so much intrigue in the process of handing over District schools – with multimillion dollar management contracts attached to them – to outside charter operators?

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. One spin cycle ends, another begins.

Public concerns about transparency and fairness? Students who want to keep their teachers? Parents disillusioned from having their wishes overturned? Teachers worried that they will be punished if they speak out?

At the end of the day, it’s all “just noise”—Ackerman’s phrase – barely audible on the third floor of 440 North Broad.

But for the time being, anyway, Moffett is where she always wanted to be, back in her Audenried classroom, happy to be teaching but a bit disappointed that her Quixotic crusade never quite reached the windmill.

“I regret that the issue whimpered to an end,” said Moffett Thursday. “I would have preferred to have it end in court.”

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