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?

Ackerman said, during the planning session for this meeting, that she didn’t want to get beat up. But her behavior seems to guarantee abuse. As City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez puts it, “It should not have taken 14 months to arrange this hearing.” But it did. And now Ackerman appears to be ducking it even while she’s sitting in the room. The tension of the moment crystallizes when Councilman Bill Green gets his chance to ask questions.

Green starts by asking about a point of law. Williams, the legislator, begins to answer for Ackerman. “I’d like Dr. Ackerman to answer that,” Green interrupts.

A minute later, he gets more challenging: “You said, during your testimony, that there are hard feelings on both sides between the district and charter schools. Can you tell me what charter schools have done to cause this?”

“I didn’t say they caused it,” replies Ackerman. She hasn’t, and Green’s questioning quickly develops into a terse semantic debate, in which the Councilman continually interrupts the Queen. The subtext here is obvious. Ackerman knows that if she answers Green’s question directly, with some complaint about charter schools, she will be painted into a corner as an enemy of charters. She isn’t going to let that happen.

“I was only referring to what I’ve heard and — ”

“What did you hear?” Green interrupts.

“I don’t remember,” replies Ackerman.

“You don’t remember,” Green repeats sarcastically. “That’s credible.”   

And with that, the Queen clearly — well, she’s had enough. As Green continues, Ackerman does some interrupting of her own. “I would like to be talked to in a civil way,” she says, “because I’m trying to answer the question. I would like respect.”

“If I have offended you in any way — ”

“You have,” interrupts Ackerman.

“I apologize,” concludes Green.

The back-and-forth continues briefly, with Green never losing his hostile tone and Ackerman never backing down. Race seems absent from this — or at least it does to me. A few minutes after the dispute ends, however, a Green supporter slides over to me and whispers: “Well, she played the disrespected black woman card. … ”

The next day, another observer in the room tells me she thought Ackerman, by evoking the issue of respect, had in fact “played the race card.” And the NAACP’s Jerome Mondesire received phone calls about the incident. He was waiting to see the video, to decide if he needed to release a statement about Green’s questioning as an example of racism in action. Clearly, in an effort to avoid being “beat up,” Ackerman had retreated from any meaningful dialogue. The hearing had become a living example of how Ackerman’s public image has a way of getting away from her, how her desire to insulate herself from the political fray does her damage.

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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 .