City looking into former superintendent’s claim she was ‘advised’ to change her charter decision
Former Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is no longer the central figure charged with educating the more than 155,000 students in the district, but her influence continues to run far and wide in the city.
Almost a month after she and the School Reform Commission agreed on her contract buyout, Ackerman has shifted attention to another unseemly School District situation — the Martin Luther King charter fiasco.
Specifically, Ackerman told The Notebook.org, a blog that covers the Philadelphia public schools, that Mayor Michael Nutter already has the results of an investigation into the controversy. It was back in April that Nutter announced an investigation into the situation headed by Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman.
“I think it’s tragic and unconscionable, that the story hasn’t been told yet,” Ackerman told the Notebook earlier this week.
According to the office of the mayor, that day is coming within the next two weeks, maybe less. Until that time, though, Ackerman and others will have to wait a little bit longer.
“The report from the chief integrity officer to the mayor will be released shortly,” mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said. “It would be premature to talk about anything particular to that whole issue at this point.”
With the resignation on Monday of School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie, Committee of Seventy President Zack Stalberg says that the public is due an answer now.
“It is my understanding that the Markman report is in [the mayor’s] hands, and I think it should be released,” said the president of the watchdog organization. “Not releasing it sends a bad message on top of the other bad messages that have already been sent. The decision of who is going to be the operator of Martin Luther King High School has been closely watched since Easter. It would clear up at least one of the clouds hanging over the school district if the mayor released the report.”
Archie’s resignation, Stalberg says, just raises more questions begging to be answered.
“Now that Archie has resigned, the public has the right to know whether or not the findings of the report had anything to do with his resignation.”
At the core of the controversy was the battle between Foundations, Inc., an organization with which state Rep. Dwight Evans has deep ties, and Mosaica Education out of Atlanta. It was reported last April that Evans — in a closed-door meeting, allegedly convinced Mosaica to back out of the five-year, $12 million contract it had been awarded so that Foundations could have it.
While she gives no specifics, Ackerman painted a picture of arm-twisting and political backroom deals being made that superseded the wants, needs and desires of the parents and children of Martin Luther King High.
Of that situation, Ackerman told The Notebook that she felt pressured on more than one occasion to endorse Foundations, Inc. over Mosaica. She added that she “was told by someone that if I didn’t get my mind right about this Foundations situation, that something would be leaked about my finances.”
Not long after she was allegedly given this directive, Fox29 News aired a report that showed she owed more $20,000 in back taxes. Ackerman’s tax attorney works at Duane Morris LLP. Archie is also a partner at Duane Morris, and a close associate of Evans.
The SRC voted to award Mosaica — which had been the choice of an advisory panel of King parents and community leaders — the contract on March 16. Scant hours later, Archie, who said he was acting in his official capacity, called a meeting of all parties despite his obvious conflict of interest — Duane Morris had represented Foundations before.
Shortly after Archie’s role became public, Foundations withdrew its bid for the contract. A long-suffering school that has struggled academically, King today is run by the school district as a Promise Academy.
At the time the decision was made, Ackerman appeared neutral on the issue. Now it appears that her support was for Mosaica all along, and she wants the story told.
“I think the public needs to know exactly what happened so that this won’t happen again,” Ackerman said.
When Nutter launched the investigation into the King controversy, he spoke in urgent terms of getting to the bottom of the situation. However, in the days, weeks and now months that have passed — that sense of urgency has waned.
Meanwhile, the SRC is still shrouded in mystery. When the SRC bought out Ackerman’s contract at $905,000, $405,000 came from anonymous donors. The privacy of those anonymous donors stirred a furor in the city that eventually the public donors reneged on the money, leaving the school district — and taxpayers — to foot the bill.
School officials allege factual errors in seven Black plaintiffs’ lawsuit
The Lower Merion School District denies the allegations of a lawsuit claiming it intentionally and routinely placed African Americans in special education programs when it wasn’t merited, and is seeking to have the case thrown out.
Earlier this summer, the LMSD filed a motion for a summary judgment in the case. The plaintiffs — seven African Americans — want to see the case go before a jury, and their representation responded with a court filing detailing why the case should move forward.
However, in a recently filed reply brief, the District maintains that there are factual errors by the plaintiffs that further point out why a trial by jury is not needed.
Specifically, the LMSD refutes the assertion that “from 2005 to 2008, Lower Merion did not enroll a single African-American student in any of its Honors, AP or IB courses.”
The District asserts that the plaintiffs’ expert’s work doesn’t include this. Rather, the District says Dr. James Conroy’s report states “that African-American students were enrolled in more than 30 Honors and AP courses in every year from 2005 to 2008.”
A judge is expected to rule on whether or not this case will have a jury by early November, according to LMSD liaison Doug Young. However, the judge can take as much time as he wishes before rendering a decision.
In the meantime, the LMSD says that it wants the best for all of its students whether they are Black or white. The District maintains that these are just a few isolated incidents and that they are not a full representation of the District’s approach to educating children.
“What we are trying to do is get to the same place; we do share the same goals,” said Young. “We would like to see every student achieving at their highest level. We are proud of what we have accomplished at Lower Merion. That is not to say that we are perfect and that there is not room for improvement.”
Overall, statistically Lower Merion is not doing too badly in terms of educating African Americans.
According to the District, PSSA math and reading scores for African-American students in the LMSD are at all-time highs. Its African-American students attend college at twice the rate (83 percent in 2011) of the national average. The African-American graduation rate (97 percent) substantially outstrips the national average (55 percent). In fact, African Americans in the LMSD do better than their white counterparts nationally (78 percent) and statewide (80 percent).
Lawyers for the plaintiffs, however, contend that the overall success of African-American students in the LMSD and the herding of African-American students into special education classes are exclusive of one another.
“One has absolutely nothing to do with the other,” Carl Hittinger, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said last week.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers say that in 2006 and 2010 a state report found that there were a disproportionate number of African-American students at LMSD in special education classes, which the commonwealth found was not in compliance with its requirements and standards.
The District countered this by saying that in the 2003-2004 school year, data indicated a disproportionate number of Black students “receiving special education services in relation to their population within the District.”
The obvious difference here is that the parties are discussing different school years altogether.
According to Wanda J. Blanchett, associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Education and an associate professor of urban special education in the Department of Exceptional Education at the University of Wisconsin, the disproportionate placement of African Americans in special education classes is a nefarious plot.
“African-American students are disproportionately referred to and placed in high-incidence special education categories of mental retardation, emotional or behavioral disorders and learning disabilities,” Blanchett said.
She referred to a 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Education that indicated that African-American students are not only placed in these programs at a disproportionately higher rate than their counterparts, but that they also exit from them at a slower rate.
“Once labeled as having disabilities and placed in special education, African-American students make achievement gains and exit special education at rates considerably lower than those of white students identified as having disabilities.”
African-American students, Blanchett says, that are placed in special education classes are more likely to be segregated from — with little to no contact with — their non-disabled peers and denied access to the general education curriculum.
“These realities suggest that race maters, both in educators’ initial decisions to refer students for special education, and in their subsequent placement decisions for students labeled as having disabilities,” Blanchett concluded.
Like a fumble in football, a mulligan in golf and, depending on the depth or persuasion of your religious convictions, a wayward soul finding salvation, the Million Man March is also looking for a second chance.
“We stand in violation of the pledge that we made in D.C. that day,” Minister Rodney Muhammad, head of Muhammad’s Mosque No. 12, said. “That pledge represents a code of conduct and because it was violated on every point, our communities continue to suffer. Our failure to stand by our pledge has allowed disunity to creep into our communities, making them worse off than they were in 1995.”
Muhammad made this statement Tuesday as a member of The Greater Philadelphia Local Organizing Committee for the 16th Anniversary of the Million Man March at a press conference at 1199C AFSCME District Council headquarters on 13th and Locust streets.
The commemorative event will take place the weekend of Friday, Oct. 7, and will conclude on Sunday at the Philadelphia Convention Center with an address by Minister Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam.
Farrakhan organized the Million Man March on the National Mall in Washington on Oct. 16, 1995. On that day, it is estimated that upwards of 1 million Black men showed up in Washington for what was to be a day of atonement. According to the Philadelphia organizing committee, more than 200,000 men from the Greater Philadelphia region attended the march.
Under a brilliant autumn sun, the march closed with the gathered men taking a pledge to “take responsibility for their lives and families, and commit to stopping the scourges of drugs, violence and unemployment.”
Many have wondered in the time since the march what has happened to the momentum that was instilled in the men who attended. Muhammad and the members of the local organizing committee have also asked that question.
“Back in 1995, Minister Louis Farrakhan was the general, and he gave marching instructions to us as soldiers,” said attorney Michael Coard, executive vice-chairman and general council of the Millions More Movement. “Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding, I guess, down the chain of command. What the general ordered didn’t necessarily happen. It’s no fault of the general; it’s the fault of soldiers like me and others.”
While atonement for past transgressions will be part of the weekend, the main focuses of the weekend will be hunger, youth violence and political accountability. Attendees at the closing address will be asked to bring at least one non-perishable food item. There will be numerous events that weekend preceding Farrakhan’s address, including a youth leadership meeting on Saturday for emerging leaders in the community, some of whom may be too young to remember the Million Man March.
Of cities with more than 1 million in population, Philadelphia has the highest percentage of people living in poverty. Philadelphia’s First Congressional District, which includes Kensington, parts of North and South Philadelphia and Chester, has the second-highest percentage of impoverished families in the United States.
“The poor, and especially people of color, are under attack by forces that have been demonstrating their anger about the election of an African-American president in the U.S.,” said Joe Certaine, former managing director of the city and a member of the committee. “They have seized the momentum by pandering to those who relish our economic, social, cultural and political demise. Without an aggressive grass-roots mobilization we cannot even hope to fight back.”
Successful music mogul and entrepreneur Kenny Gamble, chairman of the Millions More Movement, emphasized that he wants people of all colors to be involved in the events of the weekend. On Tuesday, Gamble pointed out that the problems plaguing the Black community have deep roots that are intertwined in Black culture that go as far back as slavery.
He does not consider the Million Man March a failure, but he recognizes that 16 years after the march there is still plenty of work to be done.
“It’s going to take an awakening in our culture to make sure that the men in the community don’t do the same thing that their fathers did to them,” said Gamble, alluding to the high number of female-run households in the Black community. “You have to be responsible for your children. The destiny of our community is in building families. That is the most important unit to building a great society. So men and women have to work together.”
Gamble said that the commemorative weekend will focus more on the emancipation of the mind and not the problems born out of racism.
“You have no control over that,” Gamble said. “I’d rather deal with the things that I can control than the things I can’t. You do the right things for your community and your family and you will have control of them. I don’t care if you are Eskimo, Chinese, Russian or whatever — you can’t control that. But you can control your mind and your thinking. We haven’t done a very good job of that.”
Melodie Homer knows how hard her husband fought to save the lives of the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93.
"He's a military man. He's very brave. He would have done whatever he could do to not have that plane harm any more people,” she said.
Ten years removed from the tragic terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Homer, the widow of LeRoy W. Homer Jr., the African-American co-pilot who died along with 37 passengers when terrorists commandeered the cockpit of the San Francisco-bound 757 that ultimately crashed and burned in a field in Shanksville, is still picking up the pieces.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t cross my mind, and some days it’s not easy,” the Marlton, N.J., resident said recently. “He was a loving husband, a friend and a father. He was a good man and I want to keep his memory alive.”
Melodie has done her best to carry on the spirit of her husband, who served as a pilot in the Gulf War. She is a peaceful woman of Canadian origin. But she knows her husband’s place in history is a special one, especially as the nation prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of the worst terror attack on American soil.
“Essentially, the battle against terrorism started in the cockpit of that plane,” Melodie Homer said. “It was a combination between passengers and the crew, but it started right there in the cockpit.”
For years it had been speculated that her husband and Captain Jason Dahl were killed very early in the flight by the four hijackers. But in 2002 the FBI shared with her tape of the communication between the air traffic control and cockpit that has led her to believe otherwise.
Homer is confident that the tapes make it clear that her husband was knocked unconscious and dragged from the cockpit in the initial struggle. Before the plane went down, she says, he had regained consciousness and was part of the final attack that forced the plane to abort its intended target, which was somewhere in Washington, D.C., and crash.
What she will never forget about those tapes is hearing her husband’s final words.
“He sent out the Mayday,” Homer said.
Homer will release a book this fall, “From Where I Stand,” – where she is expected to reveal much more about that tragic day.
Although she is Canadian, she has not been afraid to wade into America’s sullied political waters in the aftermath of 9/11. For instance, she opposed George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.
“Why?” she said. “We were going after al-Qaida. They were the terrorists. They were not there.”
She was relieved when President Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the attack that also toppled the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, had been killed earlier this year. She joined Obama in New York a few short days after the madman was captured, but she still carried a heavy heart.
When she finally met Obama, he embraced her a long time and she said he wanted to hear what she had to say.
“I just told him about my husband — and he listened to everything I said,” Homer said.
She has not, however, made herself a tragic figure. In fact, she has transformed her personal tragedy of 9/11 into triumphant stories for others.
In 2002 she founded the Leroy W. Homer Jr. Foundation, which awards scholarships to aspiring pilots and helps them achieve their dreams.
The foundation has awarded money to more than a dozen pilots. A pilot’s license is expensive and can cost in excess of $10,000.
Visha Patel, a 17-year-old from Pomona, Calif., was the recipient of the 2011 scholarship, which was awarded at a fund-raising event and silent auction at the Laurel Creek Country Club in Moorestown, N.J., recently.
Patel was joined by four other recent recipients of the award, all of whom have backgrounds similar to Leroy Homer Jr.
“It is wonderful that she has done this,” Patel, who wants to become a commercial pilot, said. “It is such a selfless act. There are many people who would not think of others and their future after having experienced what she and her family went through. She is turning what is a terrible moment in her life into something very positive.”
Local advocacy group calls for end to gender-specific transit passes
For some in Robin Markle’s organization, purchasing and using a SEPTA fare card is nothing short of a nightmare.
“For the people in our community, it can be terrible,” Markle, of West Philadelphia, said. “You have to deal with the emotional impact and the monetary impact that comes along with it.”
Markle was speaking for Philly Riders Against Gender Exclusion (RAGE), a grassroots “transgender and gender non-conforming” organization that wants SEPTA to do away with the male and female designations on transit passes in the city and its suburbs.
Markel and a small group of protestors showed up at SEPTA headquarters on Thursday to present General Manager Joe Casey with an application to join their movement. Members of RAGE say they have gathered 1,500 signatures — they are shooting for 3,000 — to have the designations removed.
“A lot of transgender and gender non-conforming people are harassed when they are taking SEPTA,” Markle said. “They might buy a pass that says they are one gender and they are in the process of taking hormones or having surgery. It’s not just like you wake up in the morning one day and look like the other gender. Some of the people will look ambiguous during the time when they are transforming.”
RAGE‘s position is that the gender stickers bring about discrimination to its members. They also contend that they face a threat to their safety — because of the stickers. The organization has pledged to report incidents of gender-based harassment; step in whenever they see gender-based harassment; to be a visible ally to SEPTA riders of all genders; and do everything in their power to end the gender sticker policy, which they maintain only exists in Philadelphia. Public transit agencies in New York, New Jersey, Washington and Los Angeles do not issue gender-specific passes.
While Casey did not come down to discuss the issue with the protestors, SEPTA representatives Kim Scott Heinle, assistant general manager of customer service and advocacy, and Richard Maloney, director of public affairs and marketing, met very amicably with the group.
SEPTA has maintained its policy of placing a gender designation on fare cards since 1981. However, they made it clear that this policy will soon be ending — they just couldn’t say specifically when.
“Our position has been pretty consistent since the issue was first brought up by these folks,” Heinle said. “It is a complicated issue, but it is one that needs to be addressed in a comprehensive and legal fashion. It’s a fare-related issue, so we have a very public process. The logical time for us to deal with this across the board is when the new payment technology brings us to the point where we need to go in and make some new fare adjustments. When the stickers are eliminated there is going to be some impact to revenue. That revenue impact has to be calculated by our finance people, and built into the new structure.”
SEPTA initiated placing gender identifiers on fare cards to prevent the illegal use of the card by multiple people of the same sex. In some European cities the card purchasers photo is electronically attached to the card. It is unknown if SEPTA will consider this, but it was not ruled out.
Said Maloney, “Our passes are priced and intended for personal use, not to be shared — and at a cheap discount. When we hear reports that individuals buy passes and swap it around a household, the gender sticker is just one mechanism to limit that. We can move away from it, but it won’t be until we recognize the impact it will have on revenue the next time we adjust fares.”
SEPTA has a hotline for sexual harassment complaints. Both Heinle and Malone said they have had few complaints regarding transgender and gender non-conforming riders.
“Now, I will see emails next week from across the country saying that this policy is ridiculous,” Heinle said. “It has happened before.”