"I have always had tremendous respect for her," said Lori Shorr, Philadelphia's chief education officer. "She is responsible for the fact that as a city, we started to look at our lowest-performing schools and pay much more focused attention there. We have lots of kids who are in better schools right now because of that."
Dr. Ackerman grew up in St. Louis, the oldest of five children born to a minister father and a teacher mother.
Her experience attending segregated schools, then becoming one of the only African American students at a mostly white high school, affected her profoundly. She often told of the day a white classmate refused to walk with her into their National Honor Society induction ceremony. Dr. Ackerman walked alone.
"While those were very difficult times, I think they helped shape who I am," she told The Inquirer in 2008. "They helped me understand the importance of a quality education, why resources are important. All of those experiences have made me a better leader, a better educator."
She earned a bachelor's degree from Harris-Stowe Teachers College in St. Louis, master's degrees from Washington and Harvard Universities, and a doctorate in educational leadership from Harvard.
By her own admission, Dr. Ackerman was an educator, not a politician, and that was a fact of which she was proud. That ultimately helped speed her departure from the district. The $905,000 severance she received rankled many in a district desperate for funding.
Under her watch, the district also saw attacks against Asian students at South Philadelphia High School that led to a student boycott, national scrutiny, and ultimately a landmark settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice. The district in 2010 agreed to address racial harassment in schools citywide.
Dr. Ackerman also drew heat for her handling of a $7.5 million no-bid contract for security cameras. A report adopted by the School Reform Commission had concluded that Dr. Ackerman steered the contract to a small minority-owned firm in 2010, but a recent court filing by the school district disputed those claims.
A federal whistle-blower suit is one of five court cases pending on the matter in state and federal courts.
Dr. Ackerman could be a demanding boss who expected much of her staff and the district's 11,000 teachers. She took heat for her management style, financial stewardship, and even some curriculum decisions - but earned accolades for demanding equity for all children, and for her parent and community outreach efforts.
In 2010, she was named the top urban schools chief by the Council of Great City Schools. Michael Casserly, longtime head of that organization, knew Dr. Ackerman for more than 20 years and said that "she made huge contributions to urban education - on the national scene, and in the communities she worked in."
Dr. Ackerman often said she wanted every student treated as she would have her two sons treated, and sympathized with working parents. She was a single mother, divorced from her sons' father and juggling a busy career and the care of her children. That helped shape her perspective as the leader of schools, she said.
"Arlene wore the fact that she was a woman and a mother on her sleeve," said the Rev. Kevin Johnson of Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, Dr. Ackerman's pastor and friend.
In private - and often in public - she was warm, with an easy smile. She loved to sing Motown songs and dance.
"She was smart, energetic, and had a great laugh, which she never hesitated to share," Casserly said.
William R. Hite Jr., the current Philadelphia schools chief, extended his sympathies to her family in a statement. Dr. Ackerman, he said, "encouraged countless other individuals to commit their lives to teaching, learning and leading. For that, we are grateful."
Mayor Nutter also praised Dr. Ackerman for her "vision and advocacy."
"Her educational legacy will live on for many years through the initiatives that she championed," the mayor said in a statement.
Said Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan: "While we may have disagreed about some educational issues, we always kept what's best for children as our focus. We will always remember her as a staunch advocate for Philadelphia's schoolchildren who believed that every student should have equal access to a quality education."
Dr. Ackerman began teaching in 1968, working in public schools in St. Louis, Chicago, and Seattle as a teacher, principal, and administrator. She served as superintendent of the Washington, D.C., school system from 1998 through 2000, then led the San Francisco district until 2006.
She was a professor at Columbia University Teachers College until her appointment as Philadelphia school chief in 2008.
Dr. Ackerman was Jennie Wu's adviser at Columbia and then her boss in Philadelphia. One of the things she appreciated most about her mentor, Wu said, "was how much she cared about students and parents and applying all of the things we learned to the work on the ground."
Dr. Ackerman was generous with her time, even as a big-city superintendent running an organization with a $3 billion budget and more than 150,000 students, said Wu.
After leaving the city, Dr. Ackerman formed her own educational consulting business in her new home of Albuquerque, where she moved to be near family, to whom she was close.
"She took good care of all of us," said Gregory Randle, Dr. Ackerman's youngest brother. "She leaves us quite a legacy."
Dr. Ackerman received a cancer diagnosis only a few months ago, family and friends said, but died at peace.
Johnson visited her a few weeks ago.
"Her spirits were good," the Philadelphia pastor said. "She told me, 'Pastor, I'm ready.' She was a woman of great faith."
She is survived by sons Anthony and Matthew Antognoli, two brothers, two sisters, and four granddaughters. A service will be in Albuquerque in the next month, Johnson said.
Contact Kristen Graham
at 215-854-5146, email@example.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.