Superintendent, Audenried student square off at SRC

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Despite strong opposition from some students and staff at Audenried High School, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is resolute in her conviction that the District should move ahead with its plans to convert the school to a charter.

“We are going to continue to turn these schools around. We are marching down this road,” said Ackerman Wednesday in her first public remarks on the future of Audenried since announcing the District’s new Promise Neighborhood Partnership on January 24.

Ackerman’s message, delivered at the School Reform Commission meeting, triggered a tense exchange between the superintendent and Audenried 11th grader Onika Richardson, who spoke against the District’s plans before the SRC for the second time in as many months.

“You say that you acknowledge Audenried has made progress, but that it has come too slowly,” testified Richardson, referring to comments made by Associate Superintendent David Weiner about the school’s performance during a press briefing Tuesday.

“At the old Audenried, only 3 percent of the students were testing proficiently, in comparison to the 40 percent that are now testing proficiently,” she said. “That is more than 1,000 percent increase in only two and a half years. Is that not fast enough?”

Before inviting Weiner to reiterate for the SRC the data he presented on Tuesday, Ackerman addressed Richardson’s concerns directly.

“Even if the data that this young lady presented is true, it’s still not acceptable to me that 60 percent of these young people are not prepared to go on to postsecondary experiences,” said Ackerman. “It’s not good enough for my children, and I find it ironic that people think it’s good enough for other people’s children.”

Then, as Weiner presented the District’s argument that the school is performing poorly, there were some outbursts in response from the audience. Richardson, trailed by exiled Audenried English teacher Hope Moffett and retired teacher Lisa Haver, returned from her seat to the lectern and attempted to respond to Weiner but was rebuffed. The protestations provoked shouts from others in the audience.

“[Ackerman] is the CEO. You have to be respectful,” said Desiree Whitfield, the parent of a Greenfield Elementary student who had come out for the meeting because of another issue.

Following the exchange, Ackerman offered to meet with Richardson privately, stepping out of the meeting to talk one-on-one, first in an adjoining hallway, then in a private office.

Ackerman said afterward that she had encouraged Richardson to visit the District’s Promise Academies. At the first round of 13 Renaissance Schools, Ackerman said, “Not one parent has said we want to go back to how things were before.”

District spokesperson Jamilah Fraser described their exchange as “a healthy conversation.”

Richardson offered a different view.

“She told me that she felt I was behaving disrespectfully, and she thought that I was raised better that,” said Richardson. “Although I was not happy about that comment, I remained calm and told her that I have been raised with respect, but I’ve also been raised to speak my mind and stand up for what I believe is right.”

Richardson also said that Ackerman told her that she “was letting people get into her ear,” a contention she disputed

“[Students] are not being manipulated. We are being educated,” argued Richardson.

Several Audenried staff members in attendance at the meeting circulated a data sheet that they said contradicted the statistics presented by Weiner.

Because the newly reopened Audenried has its first class of 11th graders this year, the school does not yet have PSSA scores – the key data usually used to determine student performance.

So Weiner instead discussed Audenried’s predictive test scores, which indicate that the school is about 14 points below the districtwide average in both reading and math for all high schools – including magnets. Weiner also said that only 51.3 percent of Audenried students were “on track to graduate” and that only 82 of 171 students who started at the school as 9th graders in 2008 have earned enough credits to be in 11th grade.

Audenried staff countered with data showing that their school is outperforming the District’s two current Promise Academy high schools, University City and Vaux.

The information from Audenried staffers puts the school’s current on-track-to-graduation rate at 86.9 percent. They also pointed to the school’s annual report showing an annual promotion rate at consistently above 90 percent.

After the meeting, Weiner spoke to some of the concerns raised by Audenried staff.

“If Audenried has some data that makes them slightly better than one school or another, that may be fine, but it’s still not acceptable performance to us,” said Weiner.

“It’s hard for me to understand how anyone can look at this data and not want to do something about it,” he concluded. “It’s mind-boggling.”