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SaraKay Smullens

SaraKay Smullens

Posted: March 16, 2011 02:49 PM

Color-Blind in Philly: A Courageous Teacher Takes a Stand


There is hope for all of us when people and organizations view actions for what they really are, and do not offer support or aid based primarily on skin color, culture, ethnicity or sex.

Such hope is being illustrated by a bittersweet saga now unfolding in my hometown, Philadelphia.

Why is it sweet? The Philadelphia chapter of NAACP has come out strongly in support of a 25-year-old, white, third-year English teacher whose name is Hope -- Hope Moffett. Hope is charged with giving tokens to her students so that they could attend a rally protesting placing their school on a list of "failing schools" and turning it into a charter school. Hope has questioned the findings that have led to the school's condemnation.

What makes this a head turner is that Jerry Mondesire, head of Philly's NAACP, has broken his usually strong ranks with Philly's African-American School Superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, labeling her treatment of Hope Moffett "royal vengeance" and calling it "overkill". In his words, "You can't fire someone because they object to a policy. We don't tolerate a person's constitutional right to disagree with a policy to be violated." (All quotes in The Philadelphia Daily News, March 8, p.6)

This leads to the bitter part of this saga. For her action, Ackerman has not only recommended firing Hope -- though she is still receiving her salary, Hope has also been removed from her classroom and placed alone and isolated in a "teacher jail" known as the "rubber room," a basement former storage area in Philadelphia's High School Academic Division building.

And hear this: She has been taken away from her students during the crucial time that they are preparing for critical state (PSSA) standardized tests that will help determine their academic futures, as well as their school's teaching success.

Hope has received a copy of disciplinary papers finding her guilty of dispensing tokens and then discussing her punishment when she was ordered not to discuss it with anyone.

Arlene Ackerman's Philly nickname is "Queen Arlene." She is exceedingly bright, works tirelessly, and has been known to give worried parents her personal cell phone number. That said, she is paid exceedingly well in our exceedingly cash strapped city of Sisterly Affection and Brotherly Love. Ackerman's salary last year was $348,000, her bonus $65,000.

Sadly, this superintendent flunks e.i. -- "emotional intelligence." Her "my way or the highway" leadership style has been evidenced before this disruptive incident, not only in Philly, but in D.C. and San Francisco, where she was known as a controlling autocrat.

Here in Philadelphia Ackerman was defended by Mondesire when in December 2009 she had a much delayed reaction to violence against Asian students at one of our city high schools (and blamed this lapse on her staff not telling her immediately of the horrible beatings that occurred). Mondesire also cushioned reaction to her methods of inclusion of minority entrepreneurs in awarding district contracts. But in her treatment of Hope Moffett, Mondesire states clearly and proudly: "The NAACP has been around for 100 years and sometimes we have disagreement with even our closest friends." (The Philadelphia Daily News, March 8, p.6)

When this story broke, Ackerman took a while, but finally spoke: "I don't care if... (Hope Moffett) is a good teacher ... She used poor judgment. And she hasn't apologized to anybody, because she doesn't think she's done anything wrong ... she thought she could get away with it." (The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 11, p. 8, in Commentary by columnist Annette John-Hall)

Hope's union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, has come to her defense. Hope remains isolated in "teacher jail," away from the kids who need her, responding to letters written her by her 11th grade students. But disciplinary proceedings and firing have been delayed until a judge weighs whether to grant an injunction requested by her union against the district's plans to fire her.

The union echoed the thoughts of NAACP Chair Mondesire. Jerry T. Jordan, President of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, labeled the teacher's swift removal "unprecedented" interference, which has "chilled and threatened" the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech of its membership. (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 11, p. 8)

Meanwhile Ackerman, herself unapologetic, calls Hope's actions a safety issue, one framed by the press as a violation of freedom of speech. (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 11, p. 8, commentary by Annette John-Hall) But Hope, who has been known for providing supplies and tokens for her students, claims she encouraged her students to go to an evening community meeting, not the rally. Her supply and token giving have never been questioned before, and her teaching evaluations always met or exceeded standards.

Hope, a member of Teach for American, has been fiercely dedicated to her students and among the first staff hired in 2008, when Audenried High was reopened in a new 60 million dollar building in the city's Gray Ferry section after being closed in 2005 for poor performance. It appalled her that her school and students were being labeled failures so soon after reopening, ignoring test results that document improvements and jeopardizing carefully nurtured student-teacher relationships.

"The school district thinks they're torturing her...(Hope Moffett) with this firing, but they're really torturing us," explains 16 year old Daquil Shackelford. Shackelford's sentiments are echoed by fellow students who describe their teacher's treatment as leaving their school "dysfunctional" and "chaotic." (All quotes in the Philadelphia Daily News, March 8, p. 6.)

So what is really going on?

Hope's school is one of 18 designated for radical restructuring by Superintendent Ackerman. In other instances of conversion to charter schools in Philadelphia, the community has a role in selecting who will run them. But for two schools, including Audenried High, where Hope teaches, Ackerman has announced that the decision about who will run them would be made with no community involvement and was final. Ackerman said she chose local music mogul Kenny Gamble's Universal Cos., Inc. for the job because they came with a $500,000 Department of Ed planning grant.

But a 25-year-old has questioned the validity of Ackerman's evaluation of her school and in doing so, has revealed the Superintendent's arrogance and determination to steamroll anyone and anything that stands in her way, no matter how cruel, thoughtless, inappropriate, or unilateral her actions.

Plus, this feisty young teacher is "life lessoning" her students. She is giving them first-hand knowledge about how to believe in themselves and stand up for their rights, regardless of the seeming odds against them. "Free Miss Moffett" T-shirts are being worn, and Larry Platt, editor of Philly's gutsy urban paper, the Philadelphia Daily News, known locally as the People's Paper, has offered Hope space to write about education. In a March 8, 2011, column, Platt provided Ackerman's phone number so readers could call her office to voice concern about her plans "foisted upon from on high" and "tell her she shouldn't have messed with Hope." (Philadelphia Daily News, March 8, p. 7)

And the Icing on this Philly cake is that the City of Sisterly Affection and Brotherly Love's NAACP has issued a well-deserved Failing grade to our School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. In doing so, it has bravely shown itself color blind in defense of an idealistic and courageous young teacher.

UPDATE: March 19, 2011: The headline accompanying the photo of Hope Moffett on the cover of today's Philly's Daily News says it all: "Hope After All"! Yesterday the school district ended its effort to fire Hope. This was possible because the district, in a surprise move, agreed to settle the first amendment law suit initiated by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers on her behalf. Hope will receive a five day suspension and will be in her classroom on Monday to help, support and encourage her students as they continue to take their PSSA exams. In her words, "I stand by all of the things that I've done and I feel really happy that it worked out really well in the end." (Philadelphia Daily News, March 19, p. 3) According to the Philadelphia Inquirer (March 19, A3), "...(Hope) also noted that the district said her threatened termination was never about what she had said. 'If this is not an issue of free speech, I will continue to speak out.' " Full coverage of this story begins on today's Philly's Daily News cover and page one of our Inquirer.