School aide who helped Ackerman's secret projects now expects to be fired

"The Teachers of Philly," an iPhone game created by Chris Akers, was apparently originated by an aide to Ackerman.
"The Teachers of Philly," an iPhone game created by Chris Akers, was apparently originated by an aide to Ackerman.
Posted: December 13, 2011

Christopher Akers had never met Arlene C. Ackerman before, he says, one of her top aides began ordering him to do secret projects for the controversial former schools chief.

Sometimes he felt uncomfortable about the assignments: a website for a group billed as a grassroots activist organization, or an iPhone game starring Ackerman as a superhero.

But the Philadelphia School District webmaster said he was just trying to stay employed.

"I do my job," said Akers, 30. "Sometimes, you've got a boss that you don't really like that much, but you still have to put food on the table."

On Thursday, Akers was accused of "unsatisfactory work performance," "theft of time, failure to meet deadlines and improper use of district equipment." He expects to be fired.

Akers said he did nothing wrong, but was caught up in School District politics - chosen by Ackerman and her former communications chief, Jamilah Fraser, for special and secretive tasks - and is now paying the price.

Akers first encountered Fraser when he was tapped to create a web page for Ackerman's Renaissance Schools initiative, which targeted failing schools for turnaround. It was the superintendent's signature project.

By all accounts, he wowed the higher-ups. "You've done an amazing job," one of his bosses wrote in an e-mail to Akers dated Jan. 12. "Impressing Dr. Ackerman is definitely a win for the department, so I thank you for your ability to demonstrate your talent under pressure."

Soon after that, Akers was again approached by Fraser. She wanted him to work on more projects for Ackerman. Discretion was crucial.

The clandestine projects included creating a website for Protect Philly Education, billed as an independent coalition of citizens committed to fighting for city schools' funding. He also was asked to develop an iPhone application to portray Ackerman in a positive light.

Fraser was careful about contacting him, he said.

"She wouldn't send e-mails," Akers said in an interview. "Everything was via text or stopping by my office. I would get a text message and show up at her office during my lunchtime."

The demands on Akers' time bred tension in his department, he said. Fraser eventually called a meeting with Akers and his bosses, including the IT department head.

"Jamilah said she was communicating directly to me," Akers said. "She said I couldn't discuss what I was doing with my boss and to the people I was working with."

Fraser, who was also escorted out of district headquarters on the August day Ackerman left her job, could not be reached for comment.

Reached Monday night, Ackerman said she did not know Akers and did not order him to complete any projects.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said he could not comment on a personnel matter.

Akers knew Protect Philly Education was presented to the public as an independent group, but "it wasn't," he said. "The communications team put it together."

Gallard confirmed that Protect Philly Education was engineered by Ackerman's communications department.

"We have found out that work was done by the team that left," Gallard said. "The district did outreach to individuals to donate money for the Protect Philly Education project."

In fact, the district must pay about $1,000 for Protect Philly Education printing costs. A sponsor pledged to pay the bill and then backed out, leaving the district on the hook, Gallard said.

The genesis of Protect Philly Education was discovered after Ackerman left, Gallard said, when an investigation was launched into multiple initiatives, including a lengthy Ackerman tribute video that briefly appeared on the district's website. The video was produced by district staff at the former communications office's direction, Gallard said.

Documents also show that Akers was working on an interactive site that would provide a portal for the community to watch videos "concerning the superintendent, staff and SDP community." A "student spotlight" would showcase student talents in an American Idol-style display.

Akers said that the idea for "The Teachers of Philly," an iPhone game, was also Fraser's.

"She wanted something that would put Ackerman in a better light," Akers said. "I was given the job of doing some mock-ups, of brainstorming ideas for apps. This was something to help Ackerman's relationship with teachers."

Akers worked on the game on district time at Fraser's suggestion, he said. Because it was an involved project, he reached out to some friends - non-district employees - to help.

When it became clear that Ackerman was on her way out, Fraser stopped communicating with him, Akers said. He took the project on as his own, stopped working on it during district time, and switched Ackerman's role to a villain, not a hero.

The Angry Birds-like game features three superhero teachers facing characters clearly meant to represent Ackerman, Mayor Nutter, and Gov. Corbett.

"The Teachers of Philly" launched in August. It has had 70,000 free and paid downloads, Akers said. He declined to say how much money he and his associates had made from it.

The day an Inquirer story about the game ran, district officials confiscated his computer, Akers said.

"I did have the game files and other projects on my computer," Akers said. But he said the files were there because Fraser asked him to work on the app, and because he is meticulous about backing up all his work, with personal projects saved on multiple computers.

In some cases, Akers said, he kept personal projects on his work computer because he copied sections of code to use on district projects.

When he was notified of his disciplinary conference last week, Akers was given a memo that outlined problems he has had since May.

But "that's just snippets," Akers said. "It's not the whole story. They only took things that make me look bad."

The only thing he did wrong, Akers said, was doing what a powerful person told him to do.

Akers' disciplinary hearing is scheduled for Tuesday morning. As a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, he will have union representation, but he doesn't expect the decision to go his way.


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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