ARLENE ACKERMAN, OUR schools CEO, is small and sturdy, with large, soft, maternal eyes and a short bobbed haircut that is at once modern and fit for a 62-year-old grandmother. She is dressed today in a wide-shouldered jacket with gold epaulets, lending her a kind of military bearing, and whether she is sitting here, in a boardroom with her executive cabinet, or in a public hearing, she seems sure of herself and altogether less interested in others’ approval than their acquiescence.
At the moment, one of her staffers is prepping her for a City Council hearing scheduled for the next night, on district charter schools. Her aide expects most of the assembled Council members to be supportive. It’s the dissenters who draw Ackerman’s attention. “So,” she says, “what is this really about?”
Staffers shift in their seats. Someone mumbles something about “charter-school policy,” and Ackerman gently interrupts: “Bottom-line it for me. What do they want?”
“I think, since they have no real authority over us, it’s primarily a venting session,” says her director of government relations, Joseph Meade.
This response seems somehow … wrong. This hearing has been in the works for more than a year. And the idea is that Ackerman will answer questions. Some members of City Council think she is seeking to slow down the expansion of charter schools. Ackerman, however, has a reputation for being charter-school-friendly, and says the cue to slow things down is coming from the state government. She should be eager to go tell Council exactly that, but instead she appears … suspicious. “So am I supposed to just go in there to be beat up?” she says. “Because I don’t particularly feel like getting beat up.” And with these words, it’s clear Arlene Ackerman is about to make the same mistake she made during previous superintendencies in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
Meade reminds her that most of the Council people who plan on attending the evening hearing are supportive. And another staffer suggests: “This is a chance to do what you’ve done your whole life: Educate them.”
Ackerman merely smiles wanly and rolls her eyes. So much for education. Rather than figure out how to turn the meeting to her advantage, Ackerman just wants to get through it, ego intact. And this is, for the most part, the story of her Philadelphia tenure. Controlling, aloof, imperious — yes, Arlene Ackerman has made quite an impression on Philadelphia. Which is why she already has people wondering if she’ll last long enough to make any difference in our schools at all.
The rumor, this past fall, was that Arlene Ackerman would resign by Christmas. Ackerman looks mystified over this, trying to figure out the story’s origins. But when she’s pressed, the answer comes to her. “I have said things like, ‘I came out of retirement for this?’” she says. “I mean it as a joke, but people don’t always get it that way.”
She may try to dismiss her own joke, but the start she’s had has raised the alarm. Between the fallout from her recent battle with former School Reform Commissioner Heidi Ramirez, a contentious relationship with the local media, her age, and the short professional lifespan of the average urban superintendent, Arlene Ackerman would appear to be halfway out the door already, after less than two years on the job.
The problem is that Philadelphia can’t easily afford a short-timer right now. Despite the gains made in the Vallas years, the school district is still an embarrassment. A staggering 44 percent of our city’s kids drop out, with Latinos (59 percent) and African-Americans (49 percent) leading the exodus. An April study showed the average Philly dropout consumes $319,000 in social services over the course of his lifetime. And a 2006 study revealed that roughly 80 percent of the city’s murderers and their victims are dropouts. More to the point, national research demonstrates that it takes schools CEOs six years to enact lasting benefits.
For the record, Ackerman promises to stay for “five years, 10 years, however long there’s work to do and my health holds out.” But whether she and Philadelphia can actually get along for five or 10 years is another issue. Because Ackerman has, in a sense, two different résumés — one for education, and another for politics.
Her résumé as an educator is top-notch: In D.C., she improved test scores and gutted a bloated central office, trimming administrative expenditures from 15 to six percent of the total district budget. In San Francisco, she lifted the district to top ranking among California’s urban school districts. Under her watch, San Francisco was even nominated for a prestigious Broad Prize as the top urban school district in the nation.
Ackerman’s political history, however, doesn’t create the same reason for optimism. She lasted just two years in D.C., from 1998 to 2000, leaving out of exasperation with the city’s layers of federal and local oversight. She was in San Francisco for six years, but fought incessantly with a vocal faction of her board over pretty much everything. Not one to de-escalate a situation, she even called her board a “gnat.” Finally, in 2006, Ackerman retired to a life of teaching and consulting, but we lured her back out, literally recruiting her for a job she didn’t apply for. She says she accepted for the chance to make one last run at helping schoolkids. But she brought her old flaws with her.
“She is very distrustful of politicians,” says former D.C. councilman Kevin Chavous. “Because she knows her agenda is educating children, and she doesn’t know what any particular politician’s agenda might be.”
That sounds reasonable enough, but what Philadelphia needs to understand is that Ackerman’s distrust runs so deep that it sometimes prevents her from performing the basic political functions of her job. In D.C., Chavous invited her to numerous political hearings. But Ackerman typically skipped them, like a kid ditching math class. This back-and-forth was a regular feature for a while in the Washington Post, but in private, Ackerman and Chavous struck up a friendship. They talked educational policy and fed off each other’s energy, swapping stories about school scenes they witnessed and the personal sacrifices they made. Ackerman, in fact, ultimately lost her second marriage to the long hours she worked — a testament to her passion for the job. But her private conversations with Chavous never put her at ease in public.
“I think Philadelphia got itself a good CEO,” concludes Chavous. “On matters of education, she’ll do very well. But the politics is something she’ll probably always struggle with. She hated the grandstanding of politicians. And I think there was some insecurity, because in that setting, she just freezes up.”
But it isn’t just politicians who provoke Ackerman’s fight-or-flight response. Philadelphia would come to learn that fact dramatically in December, when Ackerman sat in front of a room filled with angry Asian students and their parents. Even before that happened, though, Ackerman had been revealing her weaknesses in more subtle ways, and from the moment she arrived.
Each time the principal of Dunbar Elementary School opens another door, Arlene Ackerman goes wading in with the same expectant smile. And each time, she finds her optimism rewarded. Behind one door, she finds an entire class whose math and literacy scores have more than doubled from the previous year. Behind another, she finds a class in which no child has fallen under the dreaded “below basic” mark for literacy. Behind still another, she finds a hula hoop lying on the floor and, grinning, pulls it over her head and gives it a mighty spin around her waist. Twisting her hips furiously and smiling, she hollers, “My grandkids love seeing me do this!” as the hoop rattles quickly to the floor.
Ackerman, here on one of her weekly surprise visits, is clearly enjoying herself. In fact, her scheduler keeps reminding her that she’s already running behind. But Ackerman keeps going door to door. “I was a fifth-grade teacher,” Ackerman says later. “And I still miss it. You let me loose in here, I might not leave.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
To be fair, Ackerman does count her bodyguard, Williams, and State Representative Dwight Evans and the Mayor among her supporters. But her political network may not range far beyond that, and in the aftermath, Williams told me he was “disappointed” in her performance. He thought Green had behaved poorly, but that by coming in with a 14-page statement and not truly engaging City Council, Ackerman had sent the wrong message. He had come to the hearing to offer his symbolic support, as a Democrat who got behind charters long before most liberals were open to them. “I have never sat beside another superintendent on the issue of charters,” says Williams. “But I sat beside Dr. Ackerman because I would never put my reputation on the line if I did not believe she would treat charter schools fairly. But I intend to work on her, and let her know the importance of working through the local politicians to get support.”
Ackerman — at Williams’s urging — scheduled lunch with Quiñones-Sanchez. And she also called everyone on Council. Everyone, that is, except Bill Green. “I wasn’t ready yet,” she said, by way of explanation. “And besides, I thought maybe he should call me.”
For such a smart, accomplished lady, Arlene Ackerman is simply too easily offended. The hearing was never about Bill Green, or Arlene Ackerman. The hearing was about charter schools, maybe the most important issue in education today. Some charter-school proponents, like Green and Councilwoman Quiñones-Sanchez, worry that Ackerman has been slow to embrace successful charters — and say she could have used this platform to make her case as a charter-school supporter. In this sense, the hearing was a missed opportunity. And in the ensuing weeks, Ackerman’s public image took a hit from which it might never recover.
The blow, predictably, was self–inflicted, and it came in early December, when Ackerman sat down for a public hearing in a room filled with Asian students and parents. Painstakingly, these families detailed 18 months of abuse. The students revealed bruises and black eyes inflicted upon them by African-American peers. The parents spoke of racial slurs uttered by school staff. One speaker asked for some kind of apology — seemingly, the least Ackerman could do — but she responded only with a defensive silence. When she did speak, she compounded the problem — linking the violence to a pervasive racism that exists throughout society. It was a dismal performance, suggesting that Ackerman is less interested in protecting her students than herself.
She will likely have a hard time doing that, because she seems so ill-suited, by temperament, to the task, and because her sudden rivalry with Green may have created for her the kind of high-profile enemy she simply can’t afford.
In the wake of his nasty public spat with Ackerman, Green signaled his intention to become the new gadfly in her life, publicly announcing that he would be releasing an education plan listing goals and initiatives for the district. Ackerman called the idea that he would present such a plan “crazy.”
The risk, of course, is that in dismissing Green’s ideas before she’s even heard them, she could be seen as dismissing City Council. And if even a small faction of Council members thinks she’s looking down on them, they could get crazy all right — all over Arlene Ackerman’s head. It was the latest sign that her current job will end like those in her past. And in fact, her old friend and foil from D.C., Kevin Chavous, reacts to this latest story with an utter lack of surprise and a gentle grace note of regret: “So,” he says, “here we go. It’s already happening.”