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?

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.”