IMPACT
02/23/2011 05:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fighting For A High School Community's Right To Be Heard

Hope Moffett just wants to make sure her high school students get the education they were promised.

Hope started as a teacher at Audenried High School in Philadelphia in 2008, as part of Teach For America, back when the school had just reopened in a new $55 million building. She has been with the same class of high schoolers since they were freshmen -- but recent events in the district may end up overturning the changes she and other teachers have implemented over the past few years.

Audenried is one of 18 "failing" schools in Philadelphia scheduled to become a privately run charter school or a district run Promise Academy, a move that will have the school fire all its teachers and then let them reapply -- without union protection.

And the community has some reservations about the people who are supposed to take over. The CEO of Universal Schools, who would run the charter, described their neighborhood by saying, "dysfunctional families lead to dysfunctional communities." The community in question was given no means to participate in the planning process.

Unlike other schools under the plan, Audenried did not receive the data that the district determined to show that they are failing -- the school is on target to make Adequate Yearly Progress, which would make it the only one of the 18 to do so. Their daily attendance rate is 84 percent, and the ninth grade promotion rate is 92.8 percent -- some of the highest rates in the district. So community members and students have been baffled at the news, and at the district's unwillingness to hear their voices -- leading more than 45 students to stage a peaceful protest in front of the School District headquarters on February 15.

"Because of all of the problems with the takeover the school district held a community meeting where I spoke and students, community members, and teachers spoke," Hope said. "The district came in for 10 minutes and had no data and based it on the data of the old school -- we are legally not the old school. The federal government doesn't consider us to be the old school."

After a meeting to discuss the takeover, on February 17, Hope, who teaches 80 percent of the 11th graders in the school, was removed from the school without a formal charge, along with another teacher. She sits in the equivalent of "teacher jail" as students remain without their teacher. Today, she received the charge the district is levelling against her: "endangering the safety and welfare of children."

So what was Hope's crime? As an English teacher, Hope's mandated curriculum of Civil Disobedience, covering such authors as Emerson, Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi seemed to be perfectly suited for an essay discussing the events taking place at their school. Rather than keeping her students in the dark, Hope believed that they deserved to know what was happening, and to have the opportunity to voice their thoughts.

"I haven't organized the protests and that's what they're accusing me of. They also accuse me of using classroom time inappropriately," Hope said. But she submitted the topic for the essay -- a persuasive essay in which students could take either side of the issue -- for approval weeks before assigning it, to no objection.

The way that Hope has been treated is, she says, standard operating procedure for how district deals with teachers' disobedience. Intimidation has been successful, she believes, because other teachers, who have families to take care of, are afraid of losing their jobs. By speaking out, she has willingly made herself a target.

"I'm currently now in a rubber room to sit here all day doing nothing," she said. "There's no teacher willing to go on record because of our superintendent's tendency to intimidate and repress the staff. Another teacher who had spoken to the press was removed from her curriculum and given a whole new position."

But Hope feels it's her responsibility to look out for the students she thinks of as hers.

"I do not want my 11th graders to begin and end their high school career in chaos," she said. "Every year we've gone up 10 to 15 percent in standard mastery. We've very clearly succeeded and they're taking us over before we even know if we made AYT -- adequate yearly process." Though she's reapplied to teach at Audenried, she doubts she'll get hired -- the staff only heard that they were looking for replacement staff because one of them had a Google alert that pointed them to a Monster posting for the job.

"The district has not served them in the past and now they want to take over the school using an untested model -- the school will actually do worse than they're doing now," she said. "When you teach the same students for three years, you have an emotional investment. These are actual students that I have had forever."

Hope believes it's not too late for Audenried; as the community, and the high school students speak out against the changes, one vote no from the School Reform Commission will overturn the decision.

"They can't blindly intimidate staff without some rebellion. In one week, in three different high schools on that list, students staged walkouts," she said. "Increasingly people are showing up at meetings protesting -- they see it as experimentation on the children. Philly is in a distinct position because the school district doesn't control our future."