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 came by her doctorate from Harvard and current $325,000 salary the hard way. She was born in a predominantly black St. Louis neighborhood in segregated 1947 America. As a toddler, she lived across the street from a whites-only high school. As a teenager, she was part of the first integrated class at a different high school. She suffered the indignities we might expect, from the white girl who falsely accused her of carrying a knife to the white boy who was assigned to escort her into an Honor Society banquet but refused. Her age and experience render her anachronistic in the post-civil-rights landscape of Barack Obama, Newark mayor Cory Booker and our own mayor. But as with other issues, it isn’t that she’s politically tone-deaf. She hears the current tune; she just refuses to sing it. For her, the civil rights era isn’t entirely over — or at least, the work isn’t finished. “Education is a modern-day civil rights issue,” she says. “It happens that the majority of young people we are failing in this school system are African-American, Hispanic young men. I talk about all of them … and if they were white, I’d feel the same way. But it’s like the first person who talks about race is a racist.”

This old-school approach to race bothers some, and her uglier critics accuse her of playing the race card — or even of racism. But the evidence runs in the other direction. Her cabinet hires have been appropriately diverse. Her second husband, the one she regrets losing, is white. Her two African-American sons, from her first marriage, are partnered to white women (one is married, the other not), and she can’t stop showing off pictures of her mixed-race grandchildren. Arlene Ackerman’s problem isn’t being racist. It’s being Arlene Ackerman — a woman who has already been tagged in the public square of the Inquirer opinion page as the “autocratic, imperious … Queen Arlene.”

The author of that column, Buzz Bissinger, had never met Ackerman. But after he zapped her with his pen, he was invited in to speak with the Queen for about an hour. “You usually write something like that and the person tries to tell you why you’re wrong,” says Bissinger. “She just didn’t care. She said, ‘I’m sure I’ve stepped on toes, but I simply don’t have the time not to; kids need help now.’ I came away thinking my column was right, but she’s smart, she’s confident, and she really does care.”

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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 .