Jane Golden Should Be the New Arlene Ackerman

We already know and trust her, so why not give her a chance to turn around the school district?

Now that Arlene Ackerman has hit the road, stuffed moneybags tight by her side, noxious fumes choking us in her wake, we’re back to square one. Again. What now?

You know how we roll. Interviews. Speculation. Rumors.

And then, cue the fanfare, another out-of-towner steps forth, one with impressive degrees times three who’s said to have sprinkled magic dust in Cleveland or St. Louis or Minneapolis causing test scores to improve dramatically. The out-of-town administrator promises—hope-to-die—to put the children first when working that same miraculous test score voodoo here.

Hopes will soar, promises will be made, and yet we’ll know, Paul Vallas as our witness, that three years, four tops, we’ll turn on him, or she on us, and it’ll be hit the road, Jack, here are your stuffed moneybags, don’t let us see your face ‘round here no more, no more, no more, no more.

Instead of playing Groundhog Day with our kids, let’s re-think our approach to the superintendent gig instead. Why stick with a process that hasn’t given us sustained leadership for decades?

Forget blowing time and money on a national talent search, both of which we can afford about as much as a Cliff Lee blown shoulder right about now, let’s think local and act national instead.

Time is perpetually of the essence—and character is always paramount—so we should land a school chief who won’t need 18 months to find Lincoln Drive or Oxford Circle, and who we’ll trust because we’ve seen the work up close and personal.

One possible candidate—Jane Golden.

Golden grew up in Margate, worked in LA in the early ‘80s, returned home to establish an arts program with the Anti-Graffiti Network in 1984 which became the Mural Arts Program in 1996.

Thanks to Golden’s leadership, there are 3,000 murals in Philadelphia, and as many as 150 new ones every year. Some of the murals deliver a colorful punch to gloomy corners of the city, others tell the city’s history through the people who shaped it, many do both. A free Mural Arts education program serves thousands of at-risk kids in neighborhoods every year. Making murals, the way she sees it, is a way to teach kids responsibility and teamwork.

Golden has made Mural Arts a national success story, second only to the Phillies, it could be argued, in providing us bragging rights. If you take the murals for granted at this point (and many of us do), the best reality check is to look at them again with somebody from out of town.

What qualifies her to run the school system? She’s got classroom experience, having worked with thousands of kids in scores of playgrounds and rec centers, streetwise classroom experience at its finest. She settles disputes over the subject matter and size of murals in different neighborhoods every day. She’s become a master at coalescing diverse interests around a just cause: in the case of her program, improving the look of a community.

To succeed as a school superintendent, above all, you need to inspire a large and diverse community of kids, teachers and parents. You need to convey what can be and how to get there.

Ackerman failed, not because of racism (though the city’s cowardly sure made it seem so in their online comments), and not because she didn’t have great overarching ideas (few dispute that). It was a failure to communicate. Ackerman told audiences how much she cared about the children, but failed to realize we didn’t care. It wasn’t about what she felt; it was about how we felt.

When Golden talks about Mural Arts, she tells what the projects do for kids, for residents, for communities. When she speaks of her work, she riles people up. Her passion is true.

So before we start looking all over the map for our next superintendent, somebody just might want to give Jane Golden a call. Good bet you’ll find her talking to people in one of our neighborhoods.