Protesting Teacher Accused of Endangering Students
Last week, Hope Moffett became the most talked-about teacher in Philadelphia.
Though her students at Audenried High School are gearing up for next month’s all-important state PSSA exam, the third-year English teacher has since last Friday been sitting alone in an overheated basement room in a distant district outpost.
An outspoken critic of the School district of Philadelphia’s plan to convert her school into a charter, Moffett, 25, has been temporarily reassigned to so-called “teacher jail” and was charged by the district Wednesday with “endangering the safety and welfare of children.”
The district has said that it will not comment on personnel matters, but Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) President Jerry Jordan is fuming.
“There is clearly a sense that there are attempts to silence people’s feelings about this district and about what’s happening in their schools. That won’t be tolerated,” he said Wednesday.
“I think the district is dead wrong in the way in which they’re handling this,” he added before threatening a “strong reaction” from the PFT if the charges against Moffett prove unfounded.
Moffett and her colleagues at Audenried are among more than 1,000 teachers across the district who will be force-transferred later this spring as part of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools initiative. Though all will be given the opportunity to reapply for their jobs, none will be guaranteed positions at their current schools, many will be forced to forego their union representation if they want to stay where they are, and some may be subject to layoffs.
But Moffett says she is not risking her career to take a stand for other teachers or against Ackerman, on behalf of her union or against charter schools.
“I did this because I don’t want my students to be disheartened,” she says.
‘My Life is Teaching’
Together, Moffett and her students have been working for almost three years to prepare for the 11th grade PSSA exams, the first for the newly reopened school.
But before they ever took the test, the district last month deemed the school a low performer in need of overhaul.
And now, just weeks before the test, the district has removed Moffett, who teaches English to about 80 percent of the school’s 11th graders, from the classroom.
“The district told us that if we implemented all of their interventions, we wouldn’t become a Renaissance School,” she says. “I feel like I’ve lied to my students because I believed something that wasn’t true.”
That idealism runs deep in Moffett.
After graduating from Brigham Young University with a degree in art history, Moffett joined Teach for America and moved to Philadelphia.
That fall, she learned the day before school started that she would be teaching at the “new Audenried.”
Her first day, she discovered that despite a sparkling new $55 million facility, the school was lacking basic resources, including textbooks.
One of the big challenges during that first year, says Moffett, was convincing her students that the new building really did represent a chance to start over.
“From day one, we’ve been telling our students, ‘You will define this new school. This does not have to be the ‘Prison on the Hill,’” she says, referring to the nickname of the old Audenried, which was razed in 2005.
“It’s all been building to this defining moment where [the students] can prove that they are not a failing school” by doing well on the test, she adds.
Losing that opportunity is crushing because just getting this far has been so difficult, says Moffett.
Audenried is in Grays Ferry, one of the poorest, most violence-plagued sections of Philadelphia.
“I’ve bought [students] clothes. I’ve paid their court fees. I paid one of my student’s cellphone bill because [his family] has no house phone and he’s responsible for his sisters,” says Moffett.
But regardless of her personal attachments, Moffett says she would not be against Audenried being taken over or even turned into a charter – if the district can prove that what she and her colleagues are doing is not working.
“If they can show after the data comes out that [the school] is failing and that what we have done has not succeeded, then go ahead, take it over,” says Moffett.
“But by every indication we have, from the district’s own benchmark exams and the state’s own predictive exams, we will make AYP this year,” she predicts confidently.
Not All or Nothing
Some have argued that the recent unrest about the district’s Renaissance initiative is primarily being fueled by teachers more worried about protecting their own positions and union benefits than about what’s best for their students and schools.
To underscore her rejection of that claim, Moffett says she has already applied to teach next year for Universal Companies, the group that is slated to turn Audenried into a charter as part of its new “Promise Neighborhood Partnership” with the district.
At the end of the day, she says, “I want to teach these students.”
But that hasn’t stopped her from vocally opposing the district’s plan.
Superintendent Ackerman has said the district will turn Audenried and Edwin Vare Middle School over to Universal this spring. Parents and community members have been promised input into what happens in the newly converted schools, but were not included in the decision to turn them into charters or to hand them to Universal.
For the district, the new model is about trying to leverage a prestigious federal planning grant recently awarded to Universal to begin turning the Grays Ferry and Point Breeze neighborhoods of South Philadelphia into a “Promise Neighborhood” modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone.
Although there is no guarantee of more money for the Promise Neighborhood initiative, many think the planning grant presents a unique chance to make a big difference.
“We have the school district, the community, the city, several public agencies, the private sector, businesses, civic organizations, and universities sitting around the table to brainstorm around rebuilding these two communities,” said Universal President and CEO Rahim Islam in an earlier interview.
“The magic is going to come out in the process.”
Counter to what some might expect, Moffett agrees that the Promise Neighborhood initiative as a whole is, well, promising.
But she worries about Universal’s lack of any track record running high schools, as well as critical reports she’s heard from her students, many of whom attended Vare Middle School when it was previously managed by Universal.
“I think there’s this perception that [the Promise Neighborhood initiative] has to be all or nothing,” argues Moffett. “But not having [Universal] take over the high school doesn’t prevent them from doing all of those [other] things that would make the community a better place.”
Some may question whether someone in Moffett’s shoes can truly represent the interests of Audenried students and families, especially when compared to a group whose community roots run as deep as Universal’s.
Moffett acknowledges the concern, but rejects the notion that she is not in a position to speak out on behalf of her students.
“Me being a 25-year old white teacher who’s not from Philadelphia means I am not the best person to stand up. But I graduated from high school because teachers advocated for me,” says Moffett, one of seven children.
“I’m not the only person who feels this way" about the plan for Audenried, she adds. “But I might just be the only person who can make this sacrifice.”
‘Not Making a Stand for Teachers’
Over the past few weeks, says Moffett, she has not just been sitting around plotting ways to fight the district. In addition to her normal teaching load, she says, she has been busy planning Audenried’s first junior prom, hosting fundraising dances, tutoring her students after school, and holding grade conferences.
But she’s clearly been walking a fine line.
A district statement released shortly after Moffett went public with her reassignment insinuated that her classroom was not safe and that she had been using class time in inappropriate ways.
Moffett strenuously denies that, but she acknowledges that she has played a role in the three major public expressions of discontent at Audenried thus far.
Prior to the district-run informational meeting on February 9, she says, she led her students in a discussion about the Renaissance schools plan and how it might impact their school.
At the meeting that evening, Moffett also took several turns at the microphone and got into more than one heated exchange with the district officials present.
After that contentious meeting ended, a small group of community members and students began planning a protest for the following Tuesday. Moffett says she played no direct role in organizing the resulting student walkout, though she acknowledged that she did provide a student leader with tokens to distribute to others.
That acknowledgement was highlighted in document provided by the district to Moffett on Wednesday.
Though she could not comment directly on Moffett’s case, district spokesperson Elizabeth Childs did offer that examples of “endangering the safety and welfare of children” might include “leaving a class unsupervised, encouraging truancy, physical harm to a student or staff member, assisting students to travel off school property without consent from guardians, and other actions that may put a student at risk of harm.”
Moffett said Wednesday she was “surprised” at the allegations against her.
“I don’t see anything that I’ve done that could be construed in any way as endangering the safety and welfare of children,” she said.
An investigatory conference is scheduled for Thursday. That conference and subsequent deliberations may result in a number of outcomes, ranging from no action to a recommendation of termination.
“We are going to be with Moffett throughout this process,” said PFT President Jordan.
Moffett herself argues that how she has been treated as a teacher is a secondary issue.
“I think the district really does believe that teachers are manipulating students and the community," she says, and that if teachers are silenced, the protests against the Renaissance initiative will end.
But "in the end, I’m not making a stand for teachers,” she explains.
“The students have legitimate concerns. I have been involved in how to make it an effective protest [because] if my students are going to do something, they’re going to do it to win.”
Vol. 30, Issue 22