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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