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.”