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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  • 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 .