Arlene Ackerman: loved, vilified, remembered

Posted: February 05, 2013

ONE THING about Arlene Ackerman: You knew she was here.

Arlene had a way of generating strong feelings one way or another; loved by many parents and educational advocates, often scorned by politicians, unions and government leaders.

Her three-year tenure as Philadelphia's superintendent of public schools that ended in 2011 was a lively one.

She seemed to have a knack for annoying the wrong people and being not particularly concerned about it, while endearing herself to many others with her unswerving commitment to the education of children - especially children she felt had long been neglected.

A mother once described her as a "gift from God."

"She's a God-given choice for the School District of Philadelphia," the parent said.

But such accolades came in the late summer of 2011 when the wheels had already begun to turn to oust her from her job - with a generous $905,000 severance that was in itself controversial.

The brief against Ackerman, who died Saturday at age 66, was that she was "polarizing, autocratic and overpaid." (Her $338,000 salary was twice Mayor Nutter's.)

Ackerman died of pancreatic cancer at her home in Albuquerque, N.M.

Detractors called her "Queen Arlene," a reference to what was viewed as her imperious administrative style.

Her belief, which she often expressed, was that she was pilloried because she wouldn't play the political game.

"Is it a crime to stand up for children instead of stooping down into the political sandbox and selling our children for a politician's campaign victory?" she once demanded.

But it was evident that no matter how good her intentions, innovations, ideas and educational goals were, her manner, her inclination to bull ahead with little concern about who would be offended or put off, caused her problems.

She was not good at being her own public-relations agent.

"Arlene Ackerman was a truly committed educator who demonstrated a profound passion for students and in particular the most disadvantaged students in our city," Nutter said.

"Through her leadership, Philadelphia took on the difficult, long-neglected task of turning around low-performing schools. Today, thousands of Philadelphia students are getting a better education thanks to her vision and advocacy. Her educational legacy will live on for many years through the initiatives that she championed."

"Her goals should be our goals," said Sandra Dungee Glenn, president of the American Cities Foundation. "I think parents and Philadelphians appreciated her focus on putting the education of children first. She performed a great service to Philadelphia."

Schools Superintendent William Hite Jr. said: "Dr. Ackerman devoted her life to children and public education, and in doing so, encouraged countless other individuals to commit their lives to teaching, learning and leading. For that, we are grateful."

"Arlene Ackerman was a dynamic personality whose passion for children is to be admired," said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. "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."

Arlene C. Ackerman, a native of St. Louis, came to Philadelphia in 2008 with an extensive educational background, from teaching elementary school to running school districts in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. She also earned many honors and awards.

She looked like a good choice to reform Philadelphia's struggling school district, which was racked by constant money problems, underachieving schools and classroom violence. She introduced Imagine 2014, her five-year plan for school reform and strategies to secure more resources for needy schools.

She made her mission clear in a November 2010 statement:

"I'm not here to make the adults, who have benefited from the system not working, happy. I'm here to fight for a great education for their children."

That was the same year that the Council of Great City Schools named her urban superintendent of the year.

During her stay in Philadelphia, the number of students who passed standardized tests rose. The rate of students proficient in reading went from 38.1 percent in 2006 to 52.3 percent in 2011. In math, that figure increased from 42 percent to 52.3 percent.

She started Promise Academies to provide education and social services to poor children, and Parent University, which provides high-school equivalency classes and parental, academic and vocational training. The goal was to encourage parents to take a greater role in their children's education.

She would meet with parents and even give them her cellphone number.

In an opinion column in the Inquirer in August 2011, state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams said Ackerman's "effectiveness and, finally, her tenure were undercut by petty politics and cowardice on the part of people who put their egos and popularity ahead of the needs of the city's schoolchildren."

Former Daily News columnist Elmer Smith wrote that the news release from the School Reform Commission announcing Ackerman's departure made her "the first public official in Philadelphia history to get kicked to the curb and canonized in the same news release."

"To hear School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie tell it in an SRC statement, Ackerman was the best thing to happen to schools since the advent of the No. 2 pencil," Smith wrote.

"All of us wish to acknowledge the substantial debt we owe Dr. Ackerman," Archie wrote. "Dr. Ackerman demonstrated real results: three years of gains in test scores, a 29 percent decline in violent incidents; 7 percent gains in the six-year graduation rates, and Parents University where 40,000 parents took courses throughout the past three years."

"So, you might ask, if she was that good, why was it such an urgent matter to get rid of her just before the start of a new school year?" Smith wrote.

Why indeed?

"Her piquant mix of narcissism and arrogant authoritarianism made the School District so much fun to write about," wrote Inquirer reporter Tom Ferrick Jr. after Ackerman left. "Day to day, you never knew what boneheaded, tone-deaf thing she would say or do."

Among incidents used to criticize her:

*  She seemed insensitive when some Asian students at South Philadelphia High complained about being beaten by African-American students. She seemed to blame the victims.

*  She annoyed Nutter when he went to Harrisburg to get funding for a threatened shutdown of kindergarten classes, only to be told by Ackerman that she had found the funds after all.

*  She suspended a popular Audenried High School English teacher for giving students SEPTA tokens to attend a rally to protest a plan to turn Audenried into a charter school. Ackerman charged that the teacher risked the health and safety of the students by letting them leave school.

There was more controversy over Ackerman's $905,000 severance package when the School Reform Commission said anonymous donors, who were said to have promised $405,000 toward the package, bailed out, leaving taxpayers to foot the whole bill.

She also caused controversy by applying for unemployment compensation on top of her severance package. She was denied.

As the ax was about to fall on her in August 2011, Ackerman showed up at a leadership conference at Lincoln High School and read a poem by Maya Angelou:

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies.

You may trod me in the very dirt,

But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

"Is it a crime to believe that all children can achieve?" she asked. She said she realized that she was guilty of putting children and not politicians first.

"So sentence me, I dare you," she said. "Or set me free."

After leaving Philadelphia, Ackerman moved to Albuquerque, N.M., where she ran an educational consulting firm.

Ackerman grew up in St. Louis. She received a bachelor's degree from Harris Stowe Teachers College, now Harris Stowe State University, in St. Louis; a master's degree in educational administration and policy from Washington University in St. Louis; a master's in education from Harvard, and a doctorate in administration, planning and social policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

She was superintendent of Washington, D.C., public schools from May 1998 to July 17, 2000.

From 2000 to 2007, she was the first female superintendent of San Francisco's Unified School District.

In New York, she was director of the Urban Education Leaders Program at the Teachers College of Columbia University, and chairwoman of the Superintendents and Scholars Symposium.

She joined the Teachers College's Education Leadership faculty as the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice in 2006.

Ackerman was named "Superintendent of the Year" by the National Association of Black School Educators in 2004 when she was superintendent of schools in San Francisco.

She served on the president's board of advisers on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which advises the president and secretary of education on strengthening these institutions.

"She was a woman of great faith," said her pastor, the Rev. Kevin Johnson, of Bright Hope Baptist Church, who visited her during her illness.

She is survived by two sons, Anthony and Matthew Antognoli; two brothers, two sisters and four granddaughters.

Services: Will be held in a few weeks in Albuquerque.

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