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?

She may try to dismiss her own joke, but the start she’s had has raised the alarm. Between the fallout from her recent battle with former School Reform Commissioner Heidi Ramirez, a contentious relationship with the local media, her age, and the short professional lifespan of the average urban superintendent, Arlene Ackerman would appear to be halfway out the door already, after less than two years on the job.

The problem is that Philadelphia can’t easily afford a short-timer right now. Despite the gains made in the Vallas years, the school district is still an embarrassment. A staggering 44 percent of our city’s kids drop out, with Latinos (59 percent) and African-Americans (49 percent) leading the exodus. An April study showed the average Philly dropout consumes $319,000 in social services over the course of his lifetime. And a 2006 study revealed that roughly 80 percent of the city’s murderers and their victims are dropouts. More to the point, national research demonstrates that it takes schools CEOs six years to enact lasting benefits.

For the record, Ackerman promises to stay for “five years, 10 years, however long there’s work to do and my health holds out.” But whether she and Philadelphia can actually get along for five or 10 years is another issue. Because Ackerman has, in a sense, two different résumés — one for education, and another for politics.

Her résumé as an educator is top-notch: In D.C., she improved test scores and gutted a bloated central office, trimming administrative expenditures from 15 to six percent of the total district budget. In San Francisco, she lifted the district to top ranking among California’s urban school districts. Under her watch, San Francisco was even nominated for a prestigious Broad Prize as the top urban school district in the nation.

Ackerman’s political history, however, doesn’t create the same reason for optimism. She lasted just two years in D.C., from 1998 to 2000, leaving out of exasperation with the city’s layers of federal and local oversight. She was in San Francisco for six years, but fought incessantly with a vocal faction of her board over pretty much everything. Not one to de-escalate a situation, she even called her board a “gnat.” Finally, in 2006, Ackerman retired to a life of teaching and consulting, but we lured her back out, literally recruiting her for a job she didn’t apply for. She says she accepted for the chance to make one last run at helping schoolkids. But she brought her old flaws with her.

 “She is very distrustful of politicians,” says former D.C. councilman Kevin Chavous. “Because she knows her agenda is educating children, and she doesn’t know what any particular politician’s agenda might be.”

 

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