Arlene Ackerman

Getting The Story Straight on How Decisions Were Made at The School District

Already the news articles and columns have begun attempting to paint former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman as the victim in recent events. Opinions are being expressed that she must have been telling the truth about her role in the Martin Luther King High School debacle. Annette John-Hall even offered an open apology to Ackerman in her Inquirer column last week.

Before we all appear to have been flashy-thinged by the Men in Black, let’s take a reality check here. We are being asked to believe that all of Ackerman’s testimony in the recent report issued by Mayor Nutter’s Chief Integrity Officer is true. We are being asked to believe that her story, unchallenged by any credible witnesses, is gospel. However, the only others present at meetings described by her—State Representative Dwight Evans and his associates-- refused to give testimony; those present during phone calls were colleagues and staff whose interests lie with Dr. Ackerman.

We don’t need to turn back the pages of recent history too far to remind ourselves of all the prevarications, disingenuous answers and outright lies uttered by Dr. Ackerman during her reign in Philadelphia.

When the story of the backroom meeting with SRC Chair Robert Archie and Dwight Evans broke this past March, Ackerman’s spokesperson maintained that she knew nothing about it. After a month of rumor and speculation, Assistant Superintendent Leroy Nunery finally admitted —through his representative— to being the “unnamed district representative” present at that meeting in Martha Woodall’s April 24 Inquirer story. However, Dr. Nunery’s testimony in the recently published report states not only that he was there but that he immediately reported the events to Ackerman, describing the meeting to her as something out of “the Godfather”. Begging the question: Was she lying then or is she lying now?

Let us recount just some of the incidents over the years in which Dr. Ackerman has been less than honest. Her excuse for not immediately dealing with the crisis at South Philadelphia High School was that an Asian student actually incited the violence by harassing an African-American disabled student, a story for which she offered no proof and which has never been verified. She claimed to be out of town when the attempted silencing and termination of teacher Hope Moffet began; she used that same excuse when the District tried to change the acceptance process for magnet schools without parent notification (she has no phone or email?). She initially denied playing any part in the no-bid contract scandal in which business was diverted from one company, which had already begun the work, to another (non-approved) company. When caught in that lie, she said that she was only trying to help out minority businesses. She held an awards ceremony at Roosevelt Middle School after test scores rose fifty-three points in just two years, a feat which she must known was statistically impossible. She has yet to explain how she allowed several administrators, including South Philadelphia High School Principal LaGreta Brown, to be appointed by the school district without full accreditation. Throughout this past summer, Ackerman insisted that she was not leaving, telling her own supporters “I’m staying” while simultaneously negotiating her exit contract. She violated that same contract by subsequently engaging in public slander against her former colleagues.

Let us not forget the most egregious lie of all: that she did not know that the school district was heading towards a massive deficit which has had a disastrous effect on every school in Philadelphia. She offered her highly questionable explanation in an interview given after she resigned: “I didn’t understand the numbers.”

So when Dr. Ackerman says in the city’s report that she did not know that Melonease Shaw, to whom she paid thousands of school district dollars for “consulting”, was affiliated with Representative Evans, I believe that some skepticism on the part of the public is to be expected. When we hesitate to take seriously her assertion that she never knew that politics was involved in running a major city school district, can you really blame us?

Some crucial questions remain unanswered: how did Mosaica, whose CEO John Porter is a identified in the report as a colleague of Dr. Ackerman’s at the Broad Academy (a privately-funded institution which schools future superintendents according to a pro-charter, pro-voucher curriculum), come to be a finalist on the list of providers at Martin Luther King High? And how is Ackerman shocked, shocked at Chairman Archie’s actions in overriding the wishes of a school community after having done the same herself in more than one instance? When the West Philadelphia High School community protested the unexpected takeover of their school, Ackerman’s response was to accuse the parents of a having a conflict of interest. When students, teachers and parents protested the unjustified giveaway of Audenreid High to Kenny Gamble’s Universal company, their wishes were ignored. Now we are to believe that she found this recent overriding of parents at King “tragic”.

Dr. Ackerman’s account of recent events should be investigated in a follow-up report. The inappropriate, possibly illegal, acts of Chairman Archie and Rep. Evans are brought to light in this report and both should face the consequences for those acts and the subsequent cover-up. Why should we spend the time and energy doing the same regarding Dr. Ackerman’s possible transgressions? First, we must ensure that no future superintendent will be allowed to take on the mantle of royalty and go unchallenged by her own superiors. And the most important reason: because the public has a right to know.

Lisa Haver is an education activist; she recently retired from teaching middle school in Philadelphia.

Ending the Celebrity CEO Role of Schools Chief

Good riddance to Arlene Ackerman. If there was one thing that was totally bizarre about Ackerman's last stand, it was that she kept making bizarre statements that she refused to "play politics," with bizarro quotes like:

Is it a crime to stand for children rather than stooping down into the political sandbox for a politician's campaign victory?


I've been criticized for not being a politician," Ackerman said. "I am unapologetic about [not] making deals that hurt our children.

Uh... Up down, black white, dogs cats. You get the picture.

On her way out, Ackerman lobbed a few bombs in the direction of Dwight Evans and Michael Nutter. As a result, both Nutter and Evans have serious questions to answer about Ackerman’s allegations. But, the idea that Ackerman would not “play politics” is one of those 21st century, cognitive dissonance moments, up there with death panels and the like.

Remember Heidi Ramirez? She was the former member of the School Reform Commission who actually asked real questions of Ackerman at SRC meetings, and actually listened to parents and community members as they testified. She was forced out, and it was an open secret that Ackerman had elected officials helping to do the deed, insinuating that Ramirez didn’t care or understand the problems of African-American kids, and that her oversight (you know, her job) was part of a personal attack against Ackerman. So, out went Ramirez, and any semblance of oversight.

David Simon could not have written a story line about Arlene Ackerman. It would have been seen as a little too cynical and unrealistic. How could someone actually make up this departure? It was like watching a car crash. In slow motion. For two months straight.

Again, it was an open secret that Ackerman was leaving- the only question was how much money that they would pay her to go away. And, so, what did the “unpolitical” Ackerman do? In what appeared to be a clear attempt to leverage a higher buyout, she watched as the city was again set aflame among our old racial lines. (And, OK, she might have done a lot more than just watch.) You cannot get more craven than a politician who knows that she is leaving, pretending otherwise and turning Philadelphians on each other, all for an extra plate of gold or two on her garish, over-sized parachute.

So, good riddance, Arlene Ackerman. Don’t spend all of our money in one place.

As we go forward, I strongly hope that we realize that we desperately need to step away from the celebrity CEO model of school governance. The celebrity CEO culture, an infection that spread from Wall Street to the classrooms of our city, has done nothing but enrich a couple of people, while we are left to pick up the pieces.

So, no thank you, Joel Klein. Rubert Murdoch needs you more than we do. And, Michelle Rhee, if you hear the phone ring, its not us. Actually, we would probably go straight to voicemail, given that USA Today keeps calling to ask those pesky questions that you refuse to answer about systemic cheating in DC.

One person is not going to fix our school system. We need a committed oversight board, elected or not, to do its job. And we need someone- anyone- to identify what is Philadelphia’s philosophy and vision with respect to our public schools. When we have oversight, and a vision of what we want, then we should hire a skilled educator and community leader to fill the role of Superintendent.

Helen said the following, in her post a few weeks ago (The fittingly titled "Ackerman’s Last Days"):

If there’s one lesson we should remember about education reform, it’s that it relies less on numbers, data and yes even money, than it does on the delicate fabric of community and social trust. These relationships determine the sustainability and engagement of a whole society’s efforts to educate our children.

The goes for more than firing Ackerman, of course. It should be front and center as we choose another leader of our schools.

How we run our schools: the budget fight within the budget fight

Yesterday School District officials presented their budget request to City Council - an additional $70-100 million above the regular allocation - to fill an over $600m projected shortfall. The hook is that the District has threatened to otherwise end a slate of programs that are more integral than accessory: full day kindergarten, schools that serve the most vulnerable kids, tokens that get students to and from school. Today Council will hear public comment, and has a long list of people already signed up to testify.

So despite reports that the mayor has already committed to find the money, there is no straight line to how this would get done. There seems to be deep public and political support for fully funding public education in the city, but no consensus yet as to the least painful way to raise the money.

And there are also sharp questions about the District's own spending priorities, powerfully outlined by Parents United (and posted by Helen, below). These questions only get fueled by reporting like today's Inquirer tally of the cost of the District's internal investigation into whistleblowing over its contracting practices. The District should respond, and hopefully this budget process can become a tool to compel a real two-way conversation.

While working for Councilwoman Sanchez, I had the opportunity to visit Fairhill Community School, one of the drop-out prevention programs that is threatened. Most often when kids are corralled onto a panel to talk to a bunch of politicians, no one says anything particularly interesting. But there, every student who spoke told an arresting story - of how they came to the school, and how the respect and engagement they felt there was unlike anything they had experienced before. Each kid was 1000% clear that they would have never made it through their regular high school, or had already dropped out, because the lack of safety and size at places like Fels made it impossible for them to get the support they needed to deal with school on top of pretty harrowing life circumstances. And many, many of these students were girls raising children. If the District did go through with ending alternative schools like Fairhill, aimed at drop-out prevention and returning kids to school, there is no substitute. These kids will not graduate. We can't seriously allow them to be treated as a bargaining chip in the budget, and at the very least any additional funds should be securely targeted for the threatened programs.

But there will surely be additional cuts (language support is proposed to be halved), given the shortfall. We have to look beyond the obvious crises and consider the full budget picture, and insist on a real role for the mayor, Council, and public in deciding priorities and how and where cuts are made.

A scandal that can't be ignored

(This entry was cross-posted at the Public School Notebook)

Recent revelations about the role of School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie in the awarding of a school contract that could be worth up to $60 million demand a full investigation from state agencies and a response from Mayor Nutter.

According to a Public School Notebook/NewsWorks investigation, Archie used his role as SRC chair to effectively nullify the decision to give Martin Luther King High School to one charter organization and lobbied instead in favor of the nonprofit Foundations, Inc. – even though Archie acknowledged a conflict of interest that required his recusal from voting. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman claims her top deputy was “shocked” by what went on in one meeting run by Archie and is distancing herself from the affair. Yet her statements seem to contradict what the superintendent said she previously knew and when she knew it, and they don't explain Ackerman's own lack of action.

Foundations, which is closely tied with State Rep. Dwight Evans and has been represented by Archie’s law firm, withdrew its bid from King High School last week following the Notebook/NewsWorks investigation, citing a climate of “unrelenting hostility” from a “vocal minority.”

Foundations’ withdrawal shouldn’t mean the SRC and District officials get to retreat behind closed doors. Instead, Foundations’ decision should strengthen the resolve to investigate what increasingly looks like serious wrongdoing.


  1. On March 16, the SRC voted to give King High School to Mosaica Turnaround Partners, a for-profit, Atlanta-based charter school organization. Immediately after the SRC voted, Commissioner Archie joined Rep. Evans in a private meeting at District headquarters with Mosaica’s John Porter. After denying knowledge of the meeting details for over a month, District officials finally admitted that Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery was present and had been ordered by Archie to call in Porter. That encounter was clearly influential. Before it occurred, Porter said he was “ecstatic” to win the King vote. Less than 24 hours later, Porter abruptly withdrew Mosaica’s bid.
  2. A parent volunteer with the King SAC reported that in a one-on-one encounter with Archie on April 12, Archie told her she “did not have a choice” in what he called “a done deal” at King. The parent said Archie offered to be personally accountable for Foundations, including writing into the deal certain provisions the SAC wanted. The parent declined Archie’s offer.
  3. The next day, members of the King SAC met with the full SRC and Ackerman in a closed-door meeting. SAC members reported that Archie seemed to question the validity of their vote, while the other commissioners and Ackerman remained mostly silent on King’s management. The two SAC members in the room were brought to tears during the meeting. They said afterwards they were “furious” with Archie’s role and demanded an investigation.

In failing to raise any questions about Archie’s or its own behavior, the SRC demonstrates a clear double standard around conflict of interest. Last year, the SRC halted plans for West Philadelphia High School, citing a “conflict of interest” complaint against parents who had received an $8 an hour stipend to improve parent engagement from a subcontractor of one of West's potential turnaround partners. The District’s Inspector General even investigated the parents, a probe that went nowhere.

At the time, Ackerman was quoted as saying:

"If there's a perception or appearance of a conflict of interest, wouldn't you want this District to do something about it?” asked Ackerman.

Yet, weeks after Archie’s troubling involvement at King High School, no similar action has been taken.

There are still contradictory accounts of people's roles and their actions, or lack thereof.

Regarding the private meeting with Mosaica's Porter, Archie last week issued a brief statement acknowledging his presence “in his capacity as School Reform Commission chairman.” However, he has refused repeated requests by the Notebook/NewsWorks to answer questions about his overall conduct. Other SRC commissioners remain equally silent.

Commissioner Archie and the entire SRC must answer questions about their role in this process. Archie also needs to disclose his specific conflict of interest that required his recusal from voting but apparently not his actions behind closed doors.

The superintendent’s predictable habit of blaming others and refusing to accept responsibility can't be tolerated as a shield. Ackerman, who earlier denied any knowledge of what happened in that fateful meeting, now claims her deputy Nunery never provided her with details - and still has not to this day. Ackerman needs to explain why she continued go along with Foundations’ bid until the Notebook/NewsWorks investigation became public.

At this point, the state Inspector General or the state Attorney General’s office must conduct an investigation into the SRC, which is a state body. Depending on the results of that investigation, further action may need to happen from agencies higher up.

Mayor Nutter, who has often distanced himself from the District’s myriad problems, needs to address this growing scandal immediately. Archie was Nutter’s choice for SRC commissioner in 2009. The best thing would be for the Mayor to quietly ask Archie to step aside and lead the call for a full investigation. In the midst of a critical state budget, Philadelphia can’t afford to let questionable behavior overshadow the effort to reinstate education funding by Harrisburg.

Allowing the corrupted process at King to remain uninvestigated will further erode public confidence in the integrity of this administration to steer itself through yet another crisis.

State Rep. Dwight Evans: Bullies out a competitor like a "bulldog on a bone"

It’s not often a window opens into the backdoor politicking that sheds a light on all the terrible decisionmaking in Philadelphia.

That window blew wide open with this stunning interview State Rep. Dwight Evans gave to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook last week. In the interview, Evans boasted of his effective bullying of the School Reform Commission, Supt. Arlene Ackerman and a competitor in a high stakes game of school operations over Martin Luther King High School.

“I made this case to the [SRC] chairman, I made it to the superintendent, I made it to all of them. I said it to Mosaica – I said it to them all,” said Evans. “I said there’s been a lot of work and effort. ... I just said, 'Look – we have a plan here.'

“I was like a bulldog on a bone,” said Evans.

The quick backstory: State Rep. Dwight Evans was a leading architect behind the state takeover of the Philadelphia Public Schools, and a company with which he has close ties, Foundations Inc., became one of the District’s first EMOs (education management organizations) as well as a major recipient of millions of dollars in school service contracts. Foundations has run Martin Luther King High School for the last eight years, taking in management fees as it ran the school. The school has not done well, to say the least, and its poor academic performance placed it on a list for “turnaround,” a national model of restructuring.

According to District policy, the school formed a School Advisory Council which had parent and school representatives ranking the options for King, which the District unilaterally determined would become a charter school. There were only two choices (a third option pulled out before the vote): Foundations or Mosaica Schools, Inc. The choice, according to parents who spoke to the Notebook, was easy. 8-1, they voted for Mosaica and against Foundations. The School Reform Commission accepted the SAC’s decision last Wednesday.

Cue Rep. Evans in his own words:

Evans: I will tell you, I had a very strong strategy and plan. And I believe I made a very convincing argument.”

Notebook: When after the vote?

Evans: I talked to the chairman, I talked to all of them. I made a very convincing [inaudible]. I showed ‘em all.”

In an interview with the Daily News earlier this week, Evans denied any involvement in the decisionmaking and accused the Notebook of misquoting him. And the Notebook does what any professional journalistic outfit would do; it provides a transcript of the audiotape. Read all about it here at the Notebook.

It’s the latest fiasco behind the difficulty Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has had in convincing school communities that her “turnaround” process for schools is meant to really benefit them. Protests over turnaround – an unproven effort promoted by the U.S. Dept. of Ed – have erupted at West, King, Olney, and Audenried High Schools since the fall.

For example, as a brand new school, Audenried’s students had yet to take the PSSA exams which were supposed to be used to determine which schools were designated for turnaround. The school has protested its designation and has complained that the charter operator, Universal, has had a troubling record as an EMO provider in the District. SRC Chair Bob Archie formerly sat on Universal's board of directors.

West Philadelphia High School will be on its fourth principal in one year and the second dramatic teacher turnover thanks to the turnaround process which requires a new principal and the replacement of 50% of the teaching staff. City Council member Jannie Blackwell has indicated her close involvement in backdoor decisionmaking about West.

Although I admire what State Rep. Evans has done for the Oak Lane neighborhood and a broad visioning of that neighborhood which includes the arts and education, this interview shows he clearly crossed a line in employing brazen tactics to force out a competitor and upend an already fragile process about a minimal attempt at local control.

But hey, it’s all about the kids right?

Top 10 Education Stories of 2010

From rising test scores to a Justice Department settlement about “unlawful discrimination” against Asian immigrant youth at South Philadelphia High School, education news this year was more prominent than ever. Money poured into the district thanks to stimulus funds and Gov. Rendell’s commitment to an education funding formula. But it was the spending of that money that came under scrutiny, from contracts to salaries to million dollar turnstiles at District headquarters. Here’s my pick for the biggest local education stories of the year.

10. Big money for vouchers in the gubernatorial race: When three suburban Philadelphia businessmen made an unprecedented seven figure contribution to Sen. Anthony Williams’ gubernatorial campaign, you can bet folks sat up and noticed. The reason for the investment was clear: revive vouchers. A Republican sweep of the governor’s office and legislature make it likely this 90’s-era relic will re-surface statewide and in Philadelphia.

9. Minority contracting: The Inquirer’s investigation into Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s role in steering a $7.5 million no-bid security contract to a Black-owned business unleashed renewed complaints about the District’s poor numbers in minority contracting. Black-owned participation is a dismal 13% in the District; white female-owned is 9%, and Hispanic-owned comes in at 4%. Asian Americans receive less than one half of one percent of District business. The question remains whether the District will engage in a transparent process as it tries to improve those numbers.

8. Where's the SRC? Whether it was school violence, a looming deficit, or a willful CEO spending money often without their approval, the failure of a proactive and decisive School Reform Commission was the biggest non-story of the year. This past year, they rubber stamped a host of contracts, met for hours behind closed doors on issues like school finances that ought to have been public, then failed to take decisive action while a budget deficit blew up under their watch (see below). When faced with controversies like the violence at South Philadelphia High School or minority contracting, they stood largely silent before hundreds of people at SRC meetings. One exception: The SRC initiated a task force to identify school failures in addressing black and Latino male achievement though it's unclear how their report will result in significant change. While some commissioners have indicated a need for improvement, as a whole its members seem unable or unwilling to assume their role as fiscal stewards and assure the public they'll provide essential oversight to the often frenetic decision-making in the District.

7. Executive salaries: Daily News columnist Phil Goldsmith made a big splash this summer by highlighting Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s $338,000 salary (not including perks and benefits), among the highest in the country. Salaries overall have ballooned at the District, with chiefs in the public relations, human resources, and legal departments all earning paychecks that rival the Mayor’s. The District’s claim that such salaries are “budget neutral” will have a harder time flying given the pending deficit.

6. West Philadelphia High School: West, once a school on the upswing, became a victim of a Renaissance process gone haywire and a superintendent’s wrath. The problems started when West was slated for outside turnaround over the protest of the principal, staff and community. Things got uglier when Ackerman ordered the Inspector General to investigate parents on the School Council for conflict of interest, threw the staff into upheaval, and yanked popular principal Saliyah Cruz. West experienced chaos this fall, with many parents and students laying the blame at the feet of District interference.

5. Renaissance schools: Philadelphia jumped onto the school turnaround bandwagon promoted by U.S. Secty. of Education Arne Duncan. The District identified its lowest performing schools through a complex performance index, then invited outside providers to convert them to charters serving the same students in the same buildings. The District also invested millions into its "Promise Academies," which are District-managed investments into low-performing schools. Promise Academies received new principals and teachers – most young and inexperienced – as well as new technology, extra hours of instruction, and enrichment activities. The approach raises questions about outsourcing our most troubled schools and whether the District can guide low-performing schools through a meaningful process of improvement.

4. Rising test scores: For the first time, at least half of Philadelphia students met or exceeded proficiency standards on statewide testing. The Governor, Mayor and District leaders herald the test scores as historic. While the 2010 results are significant, other indicators of academic progress are more sobering. The Nation's Report Card showed that fewer than one in five of Philadelphia’s fourth and eighth graders are proficient in reading and math on national tests – well below the national average – and the Fordham Institute ranked Pennsylvania near the bottom of the nation in terms of rigorous state testing.

3. The DEFICIT: A dogged media confirms that the District’s deficit next fiscal year will far exceed the $230+ million acknowledged by the Superintendent and could approach half a billion dollars. (Note: Former Superintendent Paul Vallas was raked over the coals for a $73 million deficit in 2007). Both the Mayor and Ackerman held a press conference to scold the media for "speculating" about the numbers. In most camps speculating about the budget is usually called sound financial planning, isn’t it?

2. South Philadelphia High School: A year ago dozens of Asian immigrant youth won international attention when they boycotted South Philadelphia High School to draw attention to prolonged racial violence against them. Earlier this month, the U.S. Dept. of Justice charged that the District remained "deliberately indifferent" to "severe and pervasive harassment" which constituted "unlawful discrimination against Asian students based on race, color, and/or national origin at South Philadelphia High School." The Justice Department and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission issued groundbreaking agreements that set a national standard on how to address racial bias and harassment in schools. A new principal has calmed the school and made clear the difference between a quality leader and a poor one. At the center of it all stood a resilient group of immigrant students, who summed it up best:

“We will always remember December 3, [2009], but we refuse to be defined by that day. A year ago we came to you as victims. Today we come to you as youth activists, as organizers and leaders who have shown the power to make change.”

1. Arlene Ackerman: Yes, the superintendent is my pick for the number one story of the year – for becoming the news all the time. In addition to orchestrating the District’s disastrous response to civil rights violations at South Philadelphia High School, she oversaw a reverse turnaround at a once-stabilized West Philadelphia High; suspended suspected whistleblowers in a contracting dispute; fired and demoted a host of underlings for decisions that turned sour; and won national awards and impressive displays of public support. Her style and personality transcended almost any issue and demanded that every controversy become a personal referendum on her. Last February, a small group of parent supporters held up signs that seemed to embody the District's approach: “It’s Dr. Ackerman’s way or no way.”

With a paralyzing budget deficit looming and school closings on the horizon, education – and Arlene Ackerman – promise to stay at the top of the news agenda in 2011.

Remembering: South Philadelphia High School's racial violence one year later

Duong Ly, student: “We remember December 3rd but we will not be defined by it.”

A year ago today, more than two dozen Asian immigrant students were attacked throughout the school day at South Philadelphia High School. The attacks sparked an eight-day boycott by more than 70 Asian immigrant youth who raised their voices and stood up against school violence, the indifference of school officials, and the retaliatory force of the District. When the boycott ended, they organized and spoke out against continued violence, scapegoating by school officials, and failing leadership at their school. This past summer the U.S. Dept. of Justice issued a "finding of merit" in a federal complaint that the School District of Philadelphia had violated the civil rights of Asian youth by failing to protect them against racial bias and harassment.

In the process, these young boycotters – one of whom had arrived in the U.S. only six weeks prior – demonstrated the power of students to enact change in their schools. They did so under school circumstances most of us would find unimaginable. And they did so with an unwavering sense of principle and justice not only for themselves but for all students who deserve a just education in a safe school.

Today, they have become empowered young leaders who’ve been behind dramatic changes at their school and throughout the District. They’ve challenged racial stereotypes and become articulate and passionate spokespeople for safer, more inclusive and anti-racist schools. And later this afternoon, they’ll commemorate December 3rd flanked by their new principal, student allies across the city, and their fellow classmates.

This didn’t happen because adults with titles and power and responsibility stepped in to solve problems. It happened because one year ago, when chaos and hate descended, when no one quite knew what to do, their voices mattered.

Read more about the progress – and the struggles – at South Philadelphia High School: First steps at South Philly High: Will they lead to lasting change?

South Philly High six months later: What still needs work

(Cross-posted at the Public School Notebook)

In the past few weeks, the School District of Philadelphia has made a heavy media push to recast the story at South Philadelphia High School. From news articles to columns to letters to editorial board briefings, the District is pushing the story that the events of December 3 are long past and, in their typical refrain, it’s time to move on.

The latest push has been to use statistics. According to today’s Philadelphia Inquirer story, the District claims that last school year there were 92 assaults total; this year 44. From January-May, there were 70 assaults reported; this year only 15.

It seems pretty astounding for the District to stake the claim that this school year has been a better and safer one than last year. Anyone who’s been watching the story knows that the District’s numbers have constantly shifted. For example, the District’s own website here shows that Southern had well over 100 assaults last school year, not 92.

YPP-South Philly0001

In the days following the December 3 attacks the District told media outlets that minor skirmishes had happened off campus and that violence was down at the school. They later corrected that statement to say that violence at the school had spiked 32% from September through November. The December 3 violence alone – in which at least 26 Asian students were beaten and 13 sent to the hospital – would account for more than half the incidents the District counts for the year -a claim that seems sketchy at best.

South Philadelphia High: The School District's alternate reality

A few weeks back I wrote a post about Lin De Liu, a 16 year old boy who enrolled at South Philadelphia High School post-December 3 and who was assaulted last month in a bathroom stall.

Today’s Inquirer story gives an update on Lin De’s condition:

The incident lasted only seconds, but for Liu, a 16-year-old immigrant from China, the consequences have been profound.

His vision frequently turns blurry, to where he can't count fingers held in front of his face. He forgets conversations that occurred moments earlier, and sometimes struggles to identify everyday objects, like the chicken on his dinner plate. He gets sudden nose bleeds. . .

Liu was examined at Chinatown Medical Services on March 25, where the doctor wrote he had blurred vision and should be seen at a hospital. The next day, Liu underwent a CT scan of the head. A week later, a sudden loss of vision sent him to the emergency room for a second CT scan. More tests are pending.

Liu worries that his condition is permanent - and that he could be hurt even worse at school.

"I have this great fear that someone will attack me again," he said.

The family has amassed thousands of dollars in medical bills but that pales in comparison to the family’s stress.

"I'm so upset," Liu's mother, Hui Qin Chen, said through a translator as she wiped tears from her eyes. "I don't know what to do."

The medical records and at least one eyewitness statement make clear what happened: a student and his friend kicked in a bathroom stall door that smacked Lin De’s head against the wall.

But for the School District an entirely different story has cropped up a month after the attack – and delivered only to the media. No one from the School District, for the record, has formally contacted the family to explain what they found, clarify discrepancies, or even reach out and help the family deal with their son’s injuries.

According to the District:

  1. The incident was apparently a "careless" accident, not an assault. Funny though that kicking in doors isn’t exactly a passive act, and an eyewitness’ account that the boys were cracking up at Lin De’s pain doesn’t exactly indicate insouciance. The District bases this assessment on apparently no investigation at all. I wrote earlier that I thought the District had security camera footage, but that is apparently not the case. They have no footage of what went on inside the bathroom. So how do they arrive that this is an accident? Dong Chen, the eyewitness never received a follow-up interview with the District. Clearly no one has contacted the family beyond the first visit with the school. So once again, a serious incident remains uninvestigated - to the District's benefit.
  2. Lin De’s mother was turned away from the school multiple times to try and speak to school officials, but the District claims it has no proof that she was actually there. Their proof? No footage shows her inside the building at one specific entrance. Oh and plus no one fessed up to turning her away. They recommended via the Inquirer that she specifically identify the person who turned her away – even though no one’s reached out to her to ask.
  3. In an equally bizarre turn of events, the school informed Lin De’s family that the student who had committed the assault had been suspended and transferred, but the District denied that and said the family and a community advocate had “misunderstood.” That student had only voluntarily transferred out of the system.
  4. And finally, although community advocates have counted a number of incidents of harassment at the school, the School District can only come up with one – the one in the paper.

Since December 3, the District has created an alternate universe of reality in which real pain and suffering of Asian immigrant youth at the school doesn’t exist, conversations are misunderstood, and people like Lin De’s mom just make stuff up. It happens through official inquiries like the $100,000 District investigation, and it continues today despite the appalling stress and suffering of Lin De’s family. It’s an alternate reality in which the District is accountable for nothing, and an alternate reality where basic human compassion is lacking. It’s also an alternate reality where racial violence has continued an unrelenting path.

A few weeks ago a District official contacted me and suggested that I keep the District “in the loop” before publishing incidents like Lin De’s on the Notebook’s website. If Lin De’s injuries are so callously disregarded, what will it take for the District to recognize there’s a problem?

At this point, I don’t even want to contemplate the answer.

The District's South Philly High story unravels


It’s hard to imagine that a story that first comes to public light exposing a day-long series of attacks against dozens of Asian immigrant kids can get any worse with time. But indeed, somehow the story about anti-Asian violence at South Philadelphia High School keeps getting more and more outrageous as a relentless pattern of school and District misrepresentation becomes more apparent.

In riveting testimony earlier this week at the School Reform Commission, the grandmother of one of the Asian student victims wept as she described the calculated efforts of school personnel who had scapegoated and unjustly forced out her grandson following a brutal assault upon him December 2.

Her grandson was harassed in school then severely beaten outside of school the day before the December 3 attacks at South Philadelphia High School. The school never investigated the incident yet somehow punished the student, arguing first that the student had attacked a “disabled” African American student thereby triggering the December 3 violence. When that story unraveled he was then cast as a gang member by school officials as part of their new narrative that December 3 was located in gang violence and a broader pandemic of violence throughout the city.

He was one of the students suspended then transferred out of South Philly High as part of the story that December 3 was a “multiracial assault” “reminiscent of street gang conflict.” It was a story that made it to highest levels of the School District and referenced by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and an official District investigation.

Who therefore evades scrutiny? Anyone at the school or District despite the fact that community advocates had documented for more than a year a dozen meetings about on-going anti-Asian violence at Southern and pleas that went unheeded by school and District officials.

As Isaiah Thompson points out here in this week’s cover story at the City Paper:

Though never mentioned by name, this student, who speaks little English, became part of a convenient narrative for a District that wanted to paint these events as being less about the long-standing victimization of a targeted ethnic minority than the result of a feud gone haywire. After all, with the latter explanation, school officials couldn't be blamed for ignoring the powder keg that was about to blow.

In the process, a young boy became the central focus of a relentless campaign by the District who first painted him as a troublemaker then a gang member in order to fit their narrative. Not only did the District fail in its due process (failures in communication, lack of translation) they also accused him of participating in an attack the previous year – even though he was living in another state.

It’s belated gratification to note that District officials are today announcing steps to clear the boy's name. It took a family that wouldn’t accept the abuse, a hard hitting cover in the City Paper, weeks of front page stories at the Inquirer and other media coverage to make happen what three months of meetings could not.

But it’s an indication to what lengths the school and District have gone in order to avoid assumption of responsibility for the violence at South Philadelphia High. Since Dec. 3, the District and school have engaged in a deliberate pattern of behavior to misrepresent what's been happening at South Philadelphia High School and who's been responsible. It’s why Asian community advocates have not been able to “move forward” as Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has declared we ought to.

Consider the testimony of the numerous youth and advocates who testified yesterday about why the District’s actions post-December 3 have been as just as shocking and shameful as what happened on that day.

  • Failing to acknowledge that the attacks reflected anti-Asian, anti-immigrant violence: "The students who were attacked on December 3 were targeted because of the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, and the accents in their voices. Period. . . Rather than rush to the scene and decry racial violence, express concern for the victims, and commit to combatting bias, the District response has been to distort and minimize - dismiss, deny, and obscure the scale and nature of these attacks." - Ellen Somekawa, Asian Americans United
  • Not listening to students: Tram Nguyen of Victim Witness Services of South Philadelphia said one of the key elements to crisis response is to provide "ventilation and validation" to victims, but testified that there were "repeated obstacles put in place to make it almost impossible for the students to share their stories. When they were allowed to talk they were also told how much their story was hurting other students at the school."
  • Failing to act against staff who behaved inappropriately: Student after student detailed failures of school staff from security personnel who ordered students out of the building, to a principal who escorted students into a dangerous situation to a school nurse who didn't want to call an ambulance. Student Dong Chen said: "We can identify those who ordered us to leave" but students weren't asked about the failures of adults.

You can read more student perspectives here.

While the violence at South Philly made the headlines on Dec. 3, the real story has been in the appalling way the District has handled the situation since. Unfolding before us is how localized violence becomes institutionalized: the silence of the District around racial and ethnic hate, the retaliation against specific students, and the denial of student voices.

When the District remains silent about racism and racially motivated violence, then it is telling us to do the same by default. To move on. To bury the voices of the hurt, the fearful, the silenced, the victimized. The line between the message of “move on” and “get over it” to “get used to it” has become indiscernible.

Things that make me want to go . . . . UGH

  1. Today’s front page Inquirer story on the chaos at South Philly High School on Dec. 3: The chaos and trauma that gripped South Philly High is front and center - as is the leadership of SPHS principal LaGreta Brown. From before 9 a.m. and continuing throughout the school day, Brown knew of multiple attacks on Asian immigrant students and a school in crisis and largely failed to act.

    What the story missed: The day after the violence on Dec. 3rd, the Principal sent home a letter to parents that began: "As you may have heard in the news, an incident occurred at dismissal, outside of South Philadelphia High School on Thursday, December 3, 2009." The letter not only brings into question the principal's judgement that day but in the days following when Brown engaged in questionable conduct as public scrutiny increased. LaGreta Brown may have entered a challenging situation at SPHS when she arrived, but her lack of leadership, action and subsequent acceptance of responsibility has resulted in a challenging school becoming a dangerous and fractious place for all students there - Asian immigrant students in particular - and a national embarassment for the School District.

  2. Where’s the apology?: The claim that Asian students attacked a disabled African American child was an explosive allegation first uttered by Supt. Arlene Ackerman in her first remarks on the S. Philly incident almost a week after the attacks:

    "What began as an unwarranted off-campus attack on a disabled African American student, quickly escalated into a retaliatory multi-racial attack on primarily Chinese students at the school the following day." (School Reform Commission hearing, Dec. 9, 2009)

    This allegation generated confusion, heightened racial tension, and fueled suspicion citywide. And it was completely unsubstantiated, according to a recent District investigation. In fact, the report raised the likelihood that there’s a totally different version of events than the one Dr. Ackerman put out – that it was in fact Asian immigrant kids who were beaten. It would seem imperative to call for a response from the superintendent who uttered the accusation in the first place. Thus far, Dr.Ackerman has taken a convenient "case closed, move forward" approach. It’s convenient because it doesn’t accept her role in fanning the flames and heightening confusion and suspicion through hearsay and rumor rather than encouraging a thorough inquiry into what led up to the attacks.

    The high road would be to apologize. Instead, there is a deafening silence.

  3. Predatory gambling and the call to revoke Foxwoods license: Today Buzz Bissinger joined the call to revoke Foxwoods’ license. The problem is that while fed-up with the mess, the author, like others, simply says rebid the license at another location to foist the miserable process and even more miserable outcome on other neighborhoods – missing the point that it’s the larger city that suffers.

    Just read Monica Yant Kinney’s column today on the gambling at Parx casino:

    Inside the smoke-filled slots box, much of what casino bosses took for granted has changed. Gone are the days of wooing "whales" and dissing grannies in fanny packs. Parx president Dave Jonas says his revenue comes almost exclusively from local low rollers.

    "We underestimated significantly how many trips our customers were going to make," Jonas said at last month's Pennsylvania Gaming Congress in Valley Forge.

    "When I was in Atlantic City, to have 12 to 15 trips out of customers, they were VIPs," Jonas said. At Parx, "it's not uncommon for us to have 150 to 200 trips."

    Moderator Michael Pollock, a well-regarded casino analyst, paused to digest the statistic.

    "You said 150 to 200 times a year," he repeated. "That's three to four times a week, essentially."

    "Yes," Jonas confirmed, most of his players fit that profile. In fact, because Parx players tend to live within 20 miles of Street Road, many go even more frequently.

    "We have customers," Jonas boasted, "who give us $25, $30 five times a week."

    Is there any question that localized gambling is anything less than predatory? The message around Foxwoods is not to revoke the license so we can surround Philadelphia with yet another of these bottom feeding industries. The message is to revoke the license period and rethink gambling in this city and the Commonwealth. Anything less is just playing power politics rather than protecting the real needs of communities and people throughout our region.

  4. Steve Wynn: There’s no doubt that the Foxwoods fiasco continues on its downhill slide with Steve Wynn angling to gain his way in. As anti-Philadelphia as he is, Wynn is correct on this end – with predatory gambling we have struck a pact with the "dark side" so to speak – a dark side that’s on full display below (thanks to Roxbury News). And as long as city leaders keep that pact, they’ll reap what they sow.

    Steve Wynn Reveals Shocking Ignorance from Ron Stanford on Vimeo.

And not to be a complete sourpuss, I have to say it’s pretty darn cool that Vincent Chin – whose murder politicized a generation of Asian American activists around anti-Asian violence – made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

No resolution on violence at South Philadelphia High School

It’s hard to look at the findings of the District’s independent investigation into the December 3rd violence at South Philadelphia High School without significant shock and outrage. (Read the full report at the Notebook). After all, this was an incident in which more than two dozen Asian immigrant students were assaulted throughout the day in multiple attacks which sent 13 youth to the hospital at a school with a documented history of violence in general and against Asian immigrant students in particular.

Yet nearly three months after the December 3rd violence, we have a report that – while providing some insight – mostly sets us right back where we were before: with glaring discrepancies between accounts of student victims and witnesses and findings which appear to absolve the District of any responsibility. The investigation was based on interviews with only a fraction of student victims and witnesses and contained vague innuendos that served to distract from the main question: could the school/District have done anything differently to avoid or minimize the assaults?

A Frightening Analysis
The report confirms widespread violence on Dec. 3rd that began first thing in the morning and was well known to school officials.

Before 9 a.m. a student was attacked in a classroom (p. 6: previous testimony indicated that more than a dozen students had rushed into a classroom as part of an attack on an Asian student where, among other things, they threw a desk on top of him). By mid-morning there was a "surge" of 30-40 students whose "probable . . . intent was not benevolent" (p. 11) into a hallway while school staff frantically moved Asian students into classrooms. Security footage documented a "wave of 60-70 students" (p. 12) in the lunchroom hallway "surging forward" toward an attack on a small group of Asian students (p. 13). School police detained three to five students who had dragged an Asian girl down the stairwell by her hair (p. 15). After school, more than a dozen Asian students, most of whom required medical attention, were attacked by 20-40 students with more than 100 onlookers surrounding them (p. 23).

And yet, at no point does the report question the actions of school officials.

We have to burn down the school to save it? The really nice school?

I would encourage everyone to check out this article from the Notebook about Meade Elementary School, located in North Philly. A reporter from the Notebook spent half a day there, and, check out some of the things he says (heavily edited):

But Meade is not just doing breakfast well. Evidence of a positive and nurturing school climate is everywhere…

The halls are warm and inviting - filled with end tables, lamps, rocking chairs, fish tanks, lots of plants, and interesting student work. A "wall of respect" is being constructed…

We visited the mask “factory” where artist Leroy Johnson and a cohort of three other artists from the Clay Studio work along with students and their teachers in creating the masks and mounting them. “This is about conflict resolution and building cooperation,” Johnson explained…

We observed 6th graders seriously engaged in helping the 1st graders. The room was a beehive of activity, with a large group of students, teachers, and the visiting artists…

We also visited several math and reading classes, all of which were characterized by skillful teaching and students on task….

A 4th grade music class blew me away…Students not only enjoyed the lesson, but demonstrated remarkable mastery…

Sounds pretty amazing, right? Meade appears to have mixed everything from wellness (with a well-regarded breakfast program), to interpersonal learning (conflict resolution, older kids working with the babies), to creative use of the arts (including music and mask making) and to teaching the standardized curriculum. I have no idea how many schools there are out there like this. But, if this is the standard for our elementary schools, I feel better about where we are headed as a city.

But, guess what? It turns out, Meade has a target on its back. And it appears that its creative learning is about to be sacrificed to the sacred lord of No Child Let Behind’s standardized testing, and the School District’s Renaissance Schools. Why? Because Meade is now considered a “Rennaissance Alert” school, and the ramifications for all that creative teaching are about to be felt by the students and teachers of the school:

The school recently made AYP in successive years and so it is not a school where restructuring is mandated under No Child Left Behind. Last year it narrowly missed it, meeting 12 of 13 targets, and putting it in "Warning" status. Fifth-grade scores dropped. In small elementary schools where some grades have only one class, this is not unusual – a veteran teacher goes out on maternity leave or illness, someone who turns out to be subpar comes in on special assignment, and down go the scores. A problem, sure, but not the basis for making a sober judgment about school progress.

Meade may well escape the Renaissance treatment but as a result of being on the Alert list it is now an Empowerment School. That means Corrective Reading and Math and the Empowerment version of an after school program. It means say good bye to much of what the school on its own has designed and implemented. From talking to teachers it is clear that morale is taking a big hit.

Get that? An elementary school in North Philly that appears to be doing everything right is about to have its creativity stomped on, because it only met 12 of 13 of the No Child Left Behind goals. Are you kidding?

As the author of the piece says: even if you are for testing, or data driven analysis, sometimes, we have to use something a little more basic: common sense.

Hearings, and not hearing

The state Human Relations Commission has voted to investigate whether there was actionable discrimination involved in the situation at South Philadelphia High, and held a preliminary meeting yesterday. Reports from the meeting (including here) show the district superintendent still not willing to hear what some communities are saying about their experiences at the school.

Instead Ackerman seems to be actively trying to create narratives about what the problems are and aren't, and which are the "real faces" of the school:

Ackerman had booked a bus and brought along a number of South Philadelphia High "student ambassadors" - predominantly African American students not involved in the Dec. 3 fights - to talk about their efforts to promote harmony at the school.

Absent were any Asian students who had been victims of the attacks or who had boycotted the school last month.

"We don't know" why Ackerman enlisted no Asian students who were involved in the strife or its aftermath, Glassman said.

Her spokesperson explained the display, weirdly:

"They were hearing from the community, but the community is just one side of the story," she said. "She wanted to make sure that the commissioners heard the students' side - that's one voice that has been silent."

Though I think I live just within the South Philadelphia High School's boundaries, I'm not directly part of any community affected by the conflicts at the school. So I am not invested or accountable in the same way others are, including Ackerman. But from this outside perspective, I am not sure what valid motivation there is for her continued intervention in this manner. (She seems unhappy about it as well, with comments like "this is taking up a lot of my time.")

The Ackerman approach reminds me somewhat of when people absurdly talk about "reverse racism," a fiction. Racism does not work symmetrically in two directions. Systemic power imbalances exist, and matter. Likewise, while all students matter and should be valued and heard ("I'm the superintendent of almost 200,000 kids, and I care about them all"), it is not somehow unfair that students and communities suffering violence and marginalization seized a temporary platform to voice their experiences and ask for redress. It's not unfair that they are organized. All people are not the same, all experiences are not the same, and things do not need to work the same way for everyone all the time. Systemic power imbalances exist, and matter.

While this has become a profoundly complex object lesson in racism, power, and inter-/intra-community violence for all involved and observing, it is sad that district administrators are such major players in that.

From the Other Side of the Fence”; Sharpton, Gingrich, and Duncan's "Listening Tour" in Philadelphia

Students from PSU and YUC talk to Arne Duncan and Al Sharpton through a wrought iron fence.

A couple of weeks ago Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Reverend Al Sharpton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came to our city as part of their “Listening and Learning Tour” regarding a national agenda for public education reform. Students, parents, teachers, and community organizations were left wondering who the group was really listening to, since none of us were included in the tour’s agenda. We were only able to speak with them through a locked and guarded wrought-iron fence.

In the weeks leading up to the visit the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) sent several requests for the trio to meet with those who would be most affected by the reforms they plan to implement. PSU reached out through letters, calls, and emails on behalf of over 20 community organizations including Youth United for Change, Teacher Action Group, Education Not Incarceration, the Southeast PA Network, the United Taxi Workers Alliance, West Philly High Community Partners, Parents United, Radio Tlacuache, the Community Education Network, Labor Justice Radio, PA ACORN, and William Penn Community Stakeholders.

Because we believe in transparency, we attempted to get information to circulate to the entire community on the itinerary of the tour, but found that it was not public information. Every office assured us that someone else had control over the schedule. We received notice of the tour schedule at the same time the press did, approximately two days prior to the event. District leaders did not support our request to demonstrate to the members of the Listening and Learning Tour that there is an active, mobilized community in Philadelphia that supports our public schools.

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