Annette John-Hall: More relaxed, refocused, Supt. Arlene Ackerman says she's learned from last year's mistakes

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman shows stained glass in her office that was made by a teacher when she was a middle school principal near St. Louis in the early 1990s. It is among many mementos from her 40-plus years in education.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman shows stained glass in her office that was made by a teacher when she was a middle school principal near St. Louis in the early 1990s. It is among many mementos from her 40-plus years in education.
Posted: November 19, 2010

After trying to get the interview for months, I'm finally sitting with Arlene Ackerman, the superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia.

We'll get to her own hard-knock Philadelphia story in a minute.

But for the moment, we're talking movies.

Because these days, you can't have a discussion about urban education without talking about Waiting for "Superman," the acclaimed documentary that chronicles school reform in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles - and the heartbreaking hurdles that students and parents must overcome.

You probably missed Ackerman's cameo. The screen flashed a blink-and-you-miss photo of Ackerman as one of the predecessors to former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, the ├╝ber-reformer who resigned amid controversy and criticism after her political ally, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was deposed for, well, losing touch with the people.

Did Rhee get a bum rap? After all, she shook things up in the failing district, shutting down underenrolled schools, removing hundreds of underperforming teachers, offering others cash incentives in exchange for tenure. Nothing wrong with that.

"I don't think she was culturally competent for the community she was trying to help," Ackerman says, though she does support some of Rhee's reform. "And I don't think she took time to listen." Ackerman adds that Rhee's mistake was that she thought she could "tell somebody she knew what was good for them when she hadn't walked in their shoes."

Hmm. It sounds as if Ackerman has just described her own problem.

Tough job

Ackerman, in a black pinstripe pantsuit with animal-print blouse, seems relaxed, her official veneer gone for the day. She shows me around her spacious office at the district headquarters on Broad Street, a comfy sanctuary for a woman who "eats, sleeps, and drinks" what has to be the hardest job in the city - educating 167,000 children in a system that's suffered generations of failure.

There are the children's books, the perfunctory framed newspaper articles, and photos of her with Presidents Clinton and Bush (H.W. and W.), and Hillary, too.

She picks up her prized possession, a red, old-school wooden key ring, which doubled as a hall pass back in the day. It reads: "Miss Randle [Ackerman's name before she married and divorced her second husband] Room 302."

"I've had this for over 40 years," Ackerman, 63, says of her remembrance from her years as a second-grade teacher in St. Louis.

Her sentimentality dissipates like chalk dust and gives way to today's reality.

"When I first came" to Philadelphia, Ackerman says, "people said, 'We're so happy to finally have an educator at the top.' I said: 'Be careful what you ask for. . . . I know what to look for when I go into a school. I'm looking for a school I want to send my kids to. And if it's not good enough for my children, it's not good enough for anybody else's child.' "

In the 21/2 years since she took over the eighth-largest district in the country, Ackerman's take-no-prisoners style has alienated her from some folks here.

At the same time, it has made her revered nationally.

Just last month, the Council of Great City Schools crowned Ackerman the nation's top urban school leader, calling her "smart, dedicated innovative . . . and completely committed to our urban schoolchildren."

On Ackerman's watch, performance has consistently improved. About 50 percent of students are proficient in reading and math, a first since President George W. Bush installed the No Child Left Behind guidelines. Not only that, but Ackerman also got the teachers union to agree to historic concessions so her multipronged Imagine 2014, a far-reaching package of reform, could take off.

Nevertheless, she quickly found herself cast as Queen Arlene, an imperious, coldhearted administrator who didn't have the backs of her principals, had no interest in explaining herself to politicians, and, in these harsh economic times, took bonuses and cash payouts on top of her $338,000 salary.

(All money was stipulated in her contract, same as Paul Vallas' contract before hers. But that doesn't matter. People have their perceptions, and they're sticking to them.)

Which is what happened during Ackerman's mishandling of the beatings of Asian students by African Americans at South Philadelphia High School, which pretty much sealed her fate as far as many were concerned.

At a School Reform Commission meeting in December, Ackerman, who'd worked for six years with a predominantly Asian student body as superintendent in San Francisco, surprisingly sat poker-faced as anguished student after anguished student and some of their parents testified.

She got defensive. And did not offer an apology when she was asked for one.

It sure felt like cultural insensitivity.

Blasted in the media (including by me), and critics from all sides, the lifelong educator acknowledges that she's learned a hard lesson.

Administrators at South Philadelphia "may have been culturally insensitive." Her response was flat-footed, she concedes, saying her staff did not inform her of the seriousness of the situation until it was too late.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about or feel sorry about what happened that day."

She made wholesale changes to her executive staff, including a complete overhaul of her communications team.

The whole mess has made her a warmer, less defensive, more accessible Ackerman.

You have to give her credit not just for hanging in there, but also for wanting to stay when it looked like she might be forced out.

She doesn't have to be here. She could have stayed in New York, living a stress-free life, teaching at Columbia and consulting. Instead, she took a pay cut to come out of semiretirement to tackle this beast.

And she says she's not going anywhere.

After a tumultuous year, her two adult sons have helped her refocus.

"Are they printing that the district is getting worse?" they asked. "Are they printing that the graduation rate is going backward? No."

And then came clarity.

"The only thing that people are going to be focused on when I leave is that the system is better than I found it," Ackerman says. "Much better. And that brought me peace."

Contact me at 215-854-4986 or Read my work: Follow me on Twitter @Annette.jh.

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