With tears and speeches, students and parents at a South Philadelphia high school slated for a big shake-up pleaded Saturday with the school's incoming operator to retain the existing faculty.
"You took our teachers away," said Ava Reeves, an honor student, crying. "In reality, you're taking away a lot of the students' motivation."
She was among scores of people, including teachers, who turned out for a session inside gleaming Audenried High, the school at 33d and Tasker Streets whose administration is to be turned over to Universal Cos. Inc., a nonprofit run by music producer Kenny Gamble.
Under Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman's Renaissance schools plan, Universal would overhaul Audenried to make its academics as impressive as its appearance. It is among 18 schools to be transformed into charter schools or district-run Promise Academies, with longer school days and years and new teaching forces.
The building is new, built over four years at a cost of $60 million. But after it reopened in fall 2008, the Philadelphia School District maintains, Audenried quickly reverted to a pattern of poor performance.
Daily, about 18 percent of its students skipped school last year. Only half its freshmen were promoted to 10th grade. According to the latest predictive exam, fewer than four in 10 students in 11th grade will perform at grade level in math and reading on state exams.
By the test measure and others, it was not so different from other schools in the system. Districtwide, only 42 percent of students met state standards in reading and 36 percent met them in math in the last academic year.
In a jargon-heavy pitch Saturday, Abdur-Rahim Islam, Universal's president, talked of "asset map" and "siloed" resources. He promised a school that would be an educational powerhouse during the day and a bustling center for the community at night.
Residents and students faced a watershed moment, said District Deputy Superintendent Lee Nunery, the highest-ranking city education official at the gathering.
"It's a huge opportunity," Nunery said. "Not just for Audenried but for the entire neighborhood."
Under Universal's management, the school day would be an hour longer and there would be classes on at least some Saturdays. Students and staff would wear khaki pants and blue blazers.
"We purchase the uniform for you," Shahied Dawan, a Universal executive, told parents. "You can't say you didn't have the money for the uniform. This is part of the 'no excuses' mantra that we have."
Though current teachers may reapply for their jobs, the staff will be newly hired. This would be deja vu for Audenried, since the faculty was freshly assembled three years ago for the reopening.
A parent, Robin Reed, said she liked the uniforms, and "the structure" promised by Universal. But she said the overhaul would deal a blow to the teaching staff.
"They want to stay here with the kids," Reed said. "To remove any of the teachers would be devastation."
Jamal Mike, 16, hit on a sore point for Universal in his remarks. He noted that Universal had run nearby Vare Middle School, but that the district had taken Vare back amid questions about students' poor academic performance.
If Universal's methods "didn't work" at Vare, Mike asked, "why did you want to experiment with our school?"
Universal was hamstrung in its oversight at Vare and lacked authority to make dramatic change, Islam replied. Under the Renaissance plan, Universal is to resume operating Vare, but with broader authority.
Though she spoke little, among those at the session was Hope Moffett, the Audenried teacher who has been a vigorous public critic of the takeover. District officials pulled her from the classroom and have moved to fire her, saying she improperly gave students transit tokens to travel to a protest against the plans for Audenried.
Moffett, whose union is fighting her termination, was surrounded by a group of admiring youngsters at the meeting.
During a break, Charles Reeves talked about his daughter Ava, who spoke up on behalf of the faculty.
"She's an honor student. She loves" Audenried, he said. "This neighborhood may be bad, but she's shining."
Ava was unlikely to prevail in her fight to protect the teachers, Reeves acknowledged. He said the entire struggle had left him perplexed.
"She won't accept it. It's going to happen," he said. "I just want the best for my kids."