Karen Heller: After Ackerman, school district needs a new type of leader

Pamela Williams of Family Networking for Peace exhorted a small gathering of supporters of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman during a rally at the school district headquarters last week.
Pamela Williams of Family Networking for Peace exhorted a small gathering of supporters of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman during a rally at the school district headquarters last week. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 27, 2011

Forget 2014. Imagine 2012. Or, even, September 2011. Imagine the city school district with a new chief, a fresh start.

Embattled Superintendent Arlene Ackerman - embattled now part of her name - is surely going and most likely soon.

She's got barely a friend in Pennsylvania. A pariah in Harrisburg, which provides a majority of the district's funding, she's lost most local supporters, primarily Mayor Nutter, who penned a lengthy public rant during June's budget debate.

A recent anemic support rally, with uniform professional signs, showed the handiwork of her overpaid communications staff. How overpaid? The communications chief earns $170,000, and three deputies at least $130,000. At a time of epidemic pink slips, that allocation is costly and misguided.

Ackerman is a tenacious fighter, her passion and resolute conviction among her admirable qualities. She won't go quietly - check her legacy in other cities - and certainly not cheaply, with a potential payout of $1.5 million.

But let's put the last three tumultuous years behind us. It's best to move forward. I realize moving on is not a Philadelphia trait, but let's try. We should consider what's needed in the next superintendent, the correction, to revitalize the district and, most important, help children and the city progress.

The next superintendent must be a terrific leader, not of a small cadre, but of the entire district, and marked by a strong vision and a gift for forging alliances and communicating goals.

The superintendent should be a superb manager who attracts and maintains talent; trusts and values district employees, especially teachers; and accepts staffers' initiatives, delegating accordingly.

And, yes, it's important that the next chief is a master politician, skilled at negotiating with elected officials.

The superintendent, the School Reform Commission, indeed the entire city, must adopt the view that change is gradual and doesn't occur overnight, or even in a matter of years. Each successive school chief has served a shorter term ending in rancor, a growing national trend in large, troubled districts. Great leadership should be encouraged to blossom at its own pace, and outlast a political administration.

If the next superintendent is just going to blow through town in five, four, or what now appears to be three years, nothing will change. While a strong civic leader need not hail from Philadelphia - Chicago-born Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey moved here from Washington - learning the city and its schools and promising to stay here should be required. Stability is crucial.

Actually, go find the Charles H. Ramsey of education.

There should be less reliance on testing to quantify success. At some schools, students endure a battery of seven tests each year, requiring five weeks of the academic schedule, which regularly yield poor results that discourage students, parents, and teachers. That's not learning. When there's a demand for quick and marked improvement, coupled with a pervasive culture of fear, cheating will become widespread.

We need more stakeholders engaged in the district's success. Because the School Reform Commission consists of only five members, the more that smart, concerned and connected individuals from universities, foundations, and corporations commit to children's success, the more likely that success will be. It's time to get companies like Comcast and Urban Outfitters, whose future employees will include graduates of the School District, more invested in local education.

Additionally, make the district's mission matter to all classes and the entire region (even Harrisburg), and change the perception that Philadelphia public education is a charity serving only the poor. Interest in education is high. Nurture that interest.

The next superintendent must upend the culture at 440 N. Broad, whose bunker mentality is characterized by an entrenched bureaucracy prone to secrets, paranoia, and retribution. The district, which seems to be battling almost everyone, is in the business of educating children and shouldn't be at war with anyone.

The next leader must ensure that the entire school administration is receptive to the public, which it serves. The superintendent is a public official. Responses to incidents like the racial violence at South Philadelphia High School must be swift and candid.

Race? Try not to make it matter. Race infects almost everything, especially education, but the next superintendent has to be a skilled diplomat who transcends race.

Now imagine who that superintendent might be.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller


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