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?

The schools themselves are clearly Ackerman’s preferred milieu. Her main education strategy, wherever she’s gone, is to focus extra resources on low-performing schools, struggling kids and their families. For the kids, after-hours corrective math and reading programs are designed to bring those who are failing back into line with their peers without totally removing them from the normal class schedule. For the families as a whole, counselors are provided to interact with both children and their parents. And at Dunbar and other designated Empowerment Schools, a first-floor classroom has been refitted with treadmills, stair climbers, weight machines and computers, so school parents and their kids can exercise, look for jobs and write résumés.

It’s brass-tacks practical policy — and it discourages excuses. “For generations,” says Ackerman, “urban schools have focused on what they cannot do to solve kids’ problems at home. We’re focusing on what we can do.”

The problem for Ackerman is that she can’t tangibly demonstrate large-scale results until summer 2010, when the scores from the state assessment tests come rolling in. As a prelude, the district’s latest round of predictive exams is impressive, forecasting the number of kids demonstrating proficiency to nearly triple in literacy and to increase by 50 percent in math over the past year. But for now, Ackerman can really only be judged by the manner in which she has led, and by that measure, she’s struggling.

Ackerman was recruited to Philadelphia, lured here by meetings with Ed Rendell and Michael Nutter. Germantown clergyman LeRoi Simmons was a part of the selection committee that supported her hiring, which is why the mixed review he gives her now is so telling.  “I think she feels she knows better than the people questioning her,” Simmons says. “She doesn’t like being questioned, and she lets it show.”

Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, says Ackerman has either failed to grasp the local culture or hasn’t tried. “I think the schools, particularly here, need an ambassador,” says Stalberg. “Because when you talk to politicians, privately, they admit they’ve given up. So ultimately, since the district has no taxing authority, she needs to convince people the district is still worth investing in.”

For most of his tenure, previous schools chief Paul Vallas gave Philadelphia that sense of hope, always selling the district. Vallas once met Stalberg at a morning event, invited him out for a bagel, and was still talking to him about his school agenda several hours later.


“I’ve met her, I think, five times,” says Stalberg. “And each time, she acts like it’s the first time. I don’t think she understands that in Philadelphia, it’s all about relationships.”

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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 .