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?

That sounds reasonable enough, but what Philadelphia needs to understand is that Ackerman’s distrust runs so deep that it sometimes prevents her from performing the basic political functions of her job. In D.C., Chavous invited her to numerous political hearings. But Ackerman typically skipped them, like a kid ditching math class. This back-and-forth was a regular feature for a while in the Washington Post, but in private, Ackerman and Chavous struck up a friendship. They talked educational policy and fed off each other’s energy, swapping stories about school scenes they witnessed and the personal sacrifices they made. Ackerman, in fact, ultimately lost her second marriage to the long hours she worked — a testament to her passion for the job. But her private conversations with Chavous never put her at ease in public.

“I think Philadelphia got itself a good CEO,” concludes Chavous. “On matters of education, she’ll do very well. But the politics is something she’ll probably always struggle with. She hated the grandstanding of politicians. And I think there was some insecurity, because in that setting, she just freezes up.”

But it isn’t just politicians who provoke Ackerman’s fight-or-flight response. Philadelphia would come to learn that fact dramatically in December, when Ackerman sat in front of a room filled with angry Asian students and their parents. Even before that happened, though, Ackerman had been revealing her weaknesses in more subtle ways, and from the moment she arrived.




Each time the principal of Dunbar Elementary School opens another door, Arlene Ackerman goes wading in with the same expectant smile. And each time, she finds her optimism rewarded. Behind one door, she finds an entire class whose math and literacy scores have more than doubled from the previous year. Behind another, she finds a class in which no child has fallen under the dreaded “below basic” mark for literacy. Behind still another, she finds a hula hoop lying on the floor and, grinning, pulls it over her head and gives it a mighty spin around her waist. Twisting her hips furiously and smiling, she hollers, “My grandkids love seeing me do this!” as the hoop rattles quickly to the floor.

Ackerman, here on one of her weekly surprise visits, is clearly enjoying herself. In fact, her scheduler keeps reminding her that she’s already running behind. But Ackerman keeps going door to door. “I was a fifth-grade teacher,” Ackerman says later. “And I still miss it. You let me loose in here, I might not leave.”

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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 .