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?

Bissinger had been struck, like Chavous, by Ackerman’s obvious personal passion. And of course there are times when her zeal for the job is publicly evident. Last year, for instance, after just 13 of the city’s 10,700 teachers received unsatisfactory ratings, Ackerman contemplated the odds that so many students could fail while so few of their teachers do. Then she flatly promised the Inquirer that more teachers will be deemed unsatisfactory in the upcoming school year. It was typical Ackerman, in that she was right on the educational issue and off on the politics. “There was no acknowledgment in it of the fact that most teachers go beyond the call, buying supplies for their students because the district itself doesn’t provide them,” says teachers union president Jerry Jordan. “So it’s very painful, and alienating, for teachers to hear that kind of talk.”

Her heart — and toughness — was also evident in a stand she took over free breakfasts. Hungry kids are less likely to focus and learn in class. So Ackerman made “breakfast participation” part of her measuring criteria for a principal’s performance. In effect, she forced principals to schedule the free meal during the day’s first period, in classrooms all over the school. It’s a planning nightmare in comparison to the way many principals serve breakfast — in the cafeteria, in the half-hour before class starts. But even Ackerman’s passion may have its limits. “I really believe in her,” says one high-ranking charter-school executive, “but I question if all the demands on her, all the challenges and the politics, will wear her down.”

Just this fall, Ackerman appeared for a talk at the Union League and seemed to impress the crowd. But the most striking moment came when someone asked her how it feels to be the target of so much criticism. It shouldn’t have been an unexpected question, but hearing it, Ackerman seemed suddenly softer, smaller, younger — suddenly a girl again, at the head of the class but not accepted. Recalling the moment, Ackerman is unsure why the question elicited so much emotion from her that day. But she admits, as she did then, that sometimes the business of being a controversial schools CEO hurts.

“I don’t like to show it,” she says, then gestures at her own downcast face. “I mean, I can’t go around like this all the time.”

By the time it’s Arlene Ackerman’s turn to speak before City Council, she has already sent all the wrong messages. First, on a night when she’s supposed to answer questions about charter-school policy, her staff has submitted a 14-page speech she apparently intends to read, verbatim, before anyone can question her. Second, she hasn’t come to the witness table alone. Instead, State Senator Anthony “Hardy” Williams sits beside her, outranking every other politician in the room in constituency size.

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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 .