Arlene Ackerman Profile: Queen Arlene

Philadelphia schools head Arlene Ackerman arrived a year and a half ago with a strong résumé on education but an unwillingness to play politics. So just how long do you think she’ll last in this town?

ARLENE ACKERMAN, OUR schools CEO, is small and sturdy, with large, soft, maternal eyes and a short bobbed haircut that is at once modern and fit for a 62-year-old grandmother. She is dressed today in a wide-shouldered jacket with gold epaulets, lending her a kind of military bearing, and whether she is sitting here, in a boardroom with her executive cabinet, or in a public hearing, she seems sure of herself and altogether less interested in others’ approval than their acquiescence.

At the moment, one of her staffers is prepping her for a City Council hearing scheduled for the next night, on district charter schools. Her aide expects most of the assembled Council members to be supportive. It’s the dissenters who draw Ackerman’s attention. “So,” she says, “what is this really about?”

Staffers shift in their seats. Someone mumbles something about “charter-school policy,” and Ackerman gently interrupts: “Bottom-line it for me. What do they want?”

“I think, since they have no real authority over us, it’s primarily a venting session,” says her director of government relations, Joseph Meade.

This response seems somehow … wrong. This hearing has been in the works for more than a year. And the idea is that Ackerman will answer questions. Some members of City Council think she is seeking to slow down the expansion of charter schools. Ackerman, however, has a reputation for being charter-school-friendly, and says the cue to slow things down is coming from the state government. She should be eager to go tell Council exactly that, but instead she appears … suspicious. “So am I supposed to just go in there to be beat up?” she says. “Because I don’t particularly feel like getting beat up.” And with these words, it’s clear Arlene Ackerman is about to make the same mistake she made during previous superintendencies in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

Meade reminds her that most of the Council people who plan on attending the evening hearing are supportive. And another staffer suggests: “This is a chance to do what you’ve done your whole life: Educate them.”

Ackerman merely smiles wanly and rolls her eyes. So much for education. Rather than figure out how to turn the meeting to her advantage, Ackerman just wants to get through it, ego intact. And this is, for the most part, the story of her Philadelphia tenure. Controlling, aloof, imperious — yes, Arlene Ackerman has made quite an impression on Philadelphia. Which is why she already has people wondering if she’ll last long enough to make any difference in our schools at all.



The rumor, this past fall, was that Arlene Ackerman would resign by Christmas. Ackerman looks mystified over this, trying to figure out the story’s origins. But when she’s pressed, the answer comes to her. “I have said things like, ‘I came out of retirement for this?’” she says. “I mean it as a joke, but people don’t always get it that way.”

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  • karen

    wait, the “problem” with ackerman is that she listens to parents but not to grandstanding morons with no oversight of the schools like Bill Green? Can we clone her and get some more?

  • j

    Spoken like someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about. Try working for her. Half the parents you speak of don’t even care about the education their children are receiving. If they did, test scores wouldn’t be so low and they schools wouldn’t be so out of control. She is totally arrogant and completely out of touch.

  • June

    How do you pat yourself on the back for accomplishments never accomplished? My grandson attends a kindergarten in Philly with 29 other students in a classroom that has an assistant 1 hour a day? Lower class size ? Where?

  • Michelle

    In the time that Ackerman has been in charge of our schools, there is very little change. Things have gotten worse for us as teachers. She tears us apart. Many teachers would love for Ackerman to come into a school and teach a class with no preparation, and see how she does. Once she has done that, then maybe she could get teachers’ support. We can give her a contract, give her a high salary, and giver her benefits, but she refuses that for us. Numerous PFT members would love to see Ackerman removed from position.

  • Rebecca

    Let me just say that her NO TOLERANCE POLICY is a bunch of crap. I work at a school that teachers have been assaulted, aides have been assaulted and the kids are still there. There is NO discipline at our school since she took over and the children are running the school and they know it. I think one of her precious children need to slam her against a wall or punch her in the face and see how she likes it. SHE NEEDS TO GET OUT OF PHILLY!

  • Bridget

    My daughter is in a kindergarten class in the Far Northeast and there are 29 kids and her aide is there only 2 hours a day. I was told the principal knows but can’t do anything about it all the Kindergarten classes are that way at the school. So where are these smaller class sizes? Not up here in the Northeast!!! Also, I have a child in 2nd grade in a class with IEP children and I’m told no specialist comes in to offer additional help with reading and math. I was told my child would get extra help. I hope to get my kids into a charter school next year. Someone should check up on Ackerman and not the SRC someone from Washington or the Governor of PA

  • Steve

    Volk is wrong about Corrective Reading/Math being after school programs just for the kids who have fallen behind. In Empowerment schools they are forced upon the entire student population during school hours. As a result teachers are losing 1 1/2 hours of instructional time from the regular core curriculum that the PSSA tests them on. Is it anyone wonder teachers and principals think this is deliberate sabotage on Arlene’s part. BTW, Ackerman was fired, not retired, from the San Francisco. She was also fired as a principal from the Brittany Woods School she ran when she declared her “black agenda” for the school, to a newspaper.

  • Steve

    Where are these exercise rooms with computers for parents? There is none in my Empowerment School. Where did Steve Volk get this information? Did he actually visit all 85 Empowerment Schools or take the word of the school district PR minister?

  • nadine

    I have nephew in south Philly . high ,they are the worth ,he has been there since 2006 and no I.E.P. report you and your staff kept pushing the buck to some one else ,i just cannot understand why ,your school gets paid to teach him ,but you and your staff treated his and his pear as a no body ,he has dreams ,he wants to learn like other student .This school put him in the most dirty class room ,the teacher was Miss Griffin and a dam good teacher ,i am seriously thinking about going to the news about how your school treated these young adults who i know wants to be some body ,your school don;t have life skills and the nothing to prepare a young adult for life . South Philly is nothing .