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?

Arlene Ackerman does court school district parents — almost to the exclusion of everyone else.

She holds monthly parent roundtables and more intimate affairs in private homes. I watched her spend nearly two hours in a North Philadelphia house, quietly taking notes while roughly 18 parents bitched a blue streak about their children’s lackluster schools. Even her critics acknowledge she’s courting parents with a special fervor. But the sight of Ackerman scribbling furiously to keep up with what someone else is suggesting she do seems telling. That’s not the same person who has shown up in other venues — the person who’s secretive, guarded, ready to do battle. The difference is that these parents aren’t hammering away at Ackerman; they’re criticizing the system she inherited. So she’s ready to make time for them in a way she simply won’t for others.

The most troubling example of Ackerman’s scorched-earth strategy was probably her rough handling of former state School Reform Commissioner Heidi Ramirez. A 35-year-old academic with a doctorate from Stanford, Ramirez was the first member of the SRC to boast a background in education, thereby arriving with built-in public support. It was her frequent interrogations of Ackerman, however, that lent her a kind of moral authority. “She seemed to be asking substantive questions,” says LeRoi Simmons. “The rest of the commissioners were sitting there like potted plants.”

A more polished politician than Ackerman probably could have wheedled Ramirez’s support, or found a way to neutralize her. After all, Ramirez had never taught in a city classroom or managed the school districts of two A-list American cities. Ackerman had. But for months, Ramirez would ask the same questions: What are the long-term staffing needs for city teachers? What will the final cost be of Ackerman’s educational initiatives?

Ackerman habitually failed to supply answers, and has said, then and now, that Ramirez was guilty of micromanaging and asking questions that required too much staff time to answer. Some of the speculation, in the months since, has centered on the role race might have played in the rivalry between the Latina commissioner and the African-American schools chief. But Ackerman has been dismissive of her critics regardless of race. And so in her dealings with Ramirez, she simply appeared truculent and unresponsive, while Ramirez looked more like a champ all the time.

Then, last August, Ramirez quit. She declines to tell her side of the story. But the most credible version of events is that Ramirez offered her resignation because she felt her feud with Ackerman had become a distraction. Ackerman insists she played no role in Ramirez’s exit: “As far as I’m concerned, she could still be here.”

But on the night Ramirez resigned, Ackerman’s body language told another story. Ramirez had just finished a tearful resignation speech, at an open SRC hearing, and the crowd stood to applaud. Ackerman was among the last to stand, pushing her chair back brusquely and thudding the heels of her hands together in perfunctory seal claps.

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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 .