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.