Ackerman focusing on the future in Philadelphia schools

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman leaves a Dec. 14 meeting where a boycott by Asian students at South Philadelphia High was discussed.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman leaves a Dec. 14 meeting where a boycott by Asian students at South Philadelphia High was discussed.
Posted: September 07, 2010

THREE YEARS in as head of Philadelphia public schools and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has the battle scars to show for it.

Last school year, she faced harsh criticism for her handling of the beatings of dozens of Asian students at South Philadelphia High, which resulted in a student protest and boycott, a federal probe and the recent letter by the Department of Justice validating the students' complaints.

She also faced intense scrutiny over both her high salary and a hefty bonus.

But all that is in the past, she said during a recent interview at school district headquarters. Starting today, which marks the beginning of the 2010-11 academic year, Ackerman said she's looking ahead.

"I'm going to focus on my work and make sure my staff focuses on the work of making sure these young people leave this school system prepared to go on to college and the world of work," she said.

She said highlights of the coming year includes rolling out the second round of the "Renaissance Schools" initiative, the district's plan to turn around failing schools by converting them into charters or schools run by a team handpicked by Ackerman. The selected schools offer Saturday instruction and enrichment programs and enhanced foreign-language training.

"We're about to start another round of Renaissance schools . . . we're committed to turning around our lowest performing schools as we move forward," she said.

Among her chief concerns under her five-year "Imagine 2014" school-reform plan, in its second stage of implementation, is revamping the truancy and school-safety programs in the district's persistently dangerous schools, she said. Twenty of the district's 265 schools made the state's list this year, said a district official.

Working alongside one of her newest hires, the district's new safety chief, Chief Inspector Myron Patterson, Ackerman will implement programs in schools addressing safety, discipline and truancy, she said. She will announce details of the initiative next week, said a district spokesman.

"We're going to monitor which kids are truant, which kids tend to have chronic disciplinary issues and . . . we want to make sure we focus on those as an integrated process," she said.

Districtwide, students and parents will also learn about conflict resolution, or "safe talk," and other lessons as part of a new districtwide anti-bullying program.

Another initiative she said that parents and students ought to look forward to is that every student within the district will get textbooks - at least during school hours, she said.

"We are working hard to make sure that that's the going to be the norm as opposed to the exception," she said.

A district spokesman did not immediately provide the amount the district has spent to purchase textbooks for every student.

Also over the next year, more focus will be allocated to school libraries that have been in need of repair and additional resources, Ackerman said. "We want every school to have a library," she said.

One of her newest initiatives to combat the dropout crisis and have students graduate in four years is adding a third graduation date. Students who are a few credits short of completing their diploma can now graduate in January, she said.

"That way, they don't have to return for an entire school year, but go right into the next step in their life," she said.

Regional office facilities, which generally served as buffers between schools and the central office, will reopen this week as parent- and family-resource centers designed to provide support services for parents.

In addition, the district will also open welcome centers in neighborhoods with a significant immigrant population.

Ackerman also said to expect more construction projects as part of the district's five-year master facilities plan, which will include renovations, constructing new buildings and consolidating buildings.

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