PHILADELPHIA - A spirited crowd of some 500 parents, students, teachers and other education staff and activists rallied in front of School District headquarters on Broad Street here Feb. 25 to protest what they say are arbitrary and top-down decisions that the district is imposing in the name of "school reform." Chants of "We deserve a choice; we deserve a voice!" filled the air as the protesters gathered on a windy day at the close of the school week.
The protest was triggered by the School District's announcement of plans to turn several neighborhood high schools over to the control of outside managers known as Educational Management Organizations (EMOs). The changes call for the staffs at the affected schools to be replaced and the teachers transferred. Those desiring to remain in their schools would have to re-apply for positions there.
Groups of students had walked out of three high schools on different days over the past two weeks to protest the district's plans, and a teacher at one of the schools had been reassigned for her alleged involvement in the student walkout. Students said they had been threatened with disciplinary action after their orderly protests against what they consider arbitrary decisions by the central administration.
Friday's rally here was originally called by the Teachers Action Group (TAG), a rank and file group of union teachers. It then drew support from a range of parent, student and community forces which came together to organize the event in the space of a week. The rally showed remarkable unity among all the groups represented.
David Kirui, an English teacher at Martin Luther King High School, a city school already under the control of an EMO, told the crowd, "We invite the District to join with us in discussing reforms, and we demand the right to be heard in a democratic forum."
Matt Van Kouwenberg, a math and science teacher at the Science Leadership Academy, seemed to summarize the grievances of many of the participants when he told the People's World, "Charter schools are an unsustainable, failing system. The privatization of public education is a disaster waiting to happen. When you are selling off schools to EMOs, it ultimately ends up hurting the majority of students."
Maurice Johnson, a junior at Audenried High School, one of the schools where a student walkout took place, presented the protesters' three demands: 1) Give students, parents and teachers a legitimate voice in school reform; 2) stop intimidating teachers and students; and 3) institute a transparent process of school changes.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan sent a statement of support to the demonstrators which said, "The administration doesn't seek our input; they issue directives and implement programs, but don't seek ideas."
Hope Moffett, the teacher reassigned for allegedly encouraging the student walkout, told the rally that her offense had actually been to urge the students to gather data to back up their claims if they intended to go public with their protest.
Moffett explained her concerns about the district's plans and defended the record of the teachers and students at her school in an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week. In that article she disputed the designation of Audenried as a "failing school." Several teachers at the school signed their names to the article as well.
The Philadelphia School District currently enrolls 155,000 students in 257 public schools, with an additional 45,000 students attending 74 charter schools.
Photo: Teacher Shanae Garner expresses her opinion at the Feb. 25 rally in Philadelphia. (PW/Ben Sears)