But you had to read her resume backward to really appreciate the sense of mission that drove her. She was raised middle-class in a family that would have supported her in any aspiration. She chose to teach, as her mother had before her. She went to a small teachers' college in St. Louis, even though she had been a national-honors scholar in high school and had earned numerous scholarship offers.
She was an elementary-school teacher in St. Louis. It meant spending hours each day teaching long division, reading, social studies, history and life skills to inner-city children. Half of those children would be marked permanently absent by the 10th grade. But that bleak metric could never discourage the kind of teacher I saw between the lines of Ackerman's impressive resume.
I read between those lines and I knew who she was, or at least who she had been. I have known scores of public-school teachers from similar backgrounds, many from little teaching colleges like Cheyney. They set out decades ago, back when teaching was one of the most-respected professions you could aspire to. Many of them still cling to their faith, even as they are vilified as the most salient symbols for society's failure to fully support inner-city public schools.
She knew what it was to teach. She knew what it was to be a principal in an overcrowded, underfunded school. It helps to have been on the front lines. But it takes more than an educator to run a big-city school district.
The children need an advocate in the salons of power, someone willing to go to battle for them, not just on the front lines, but also in the back rooms where power concedes nothing without a demand.
Ackerman wore her disdain for politics like a merit badge. Her previous two superintendent positions had ended in controversy, largely because of her inability or her unwillingness to, as she so dismissively put it, "play the game they want me to play."
In Philadelphia, she started to lose that game early. Her tepid response when Asian students were beaten outside South Philadelphia High cost her and the district much-needed political support.
She set up a series of forums that gave parents and neighborhood stakeholders a say in who would run the reconstituted empowerment schools. But after parents at West Philadelphia High made their choice, she overruled them and claimed that parents had sold their children out to back a company that had paid a pittance to two of them for knocking on doors to invite parents to PTA meetings.
The final straw came after the School Reform Commission had voted to back parents at Martin Luther King High who wanted to have Mosaica Turnaround Partners run King as a charter. But state Rep. Dwight Evans, Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery and a Mosaica official met in a back room an hour later. Mosaica withdrew its bid the next day.
For weeks, she maintained that Nunery had not told her about the meeting. Later, she admitted that she had been briefed. But she still played the victim in an Education Week interview, claiming that the SRC had put her on its hit list when she balked at giving the $12 million contract to Foundations, a firm with close ties to Evans. Foundations withdrew when the questionable maneuvers became public.
She floated to a soft landing on a public/private parachute that coupled $500,000 in district money with $400,000 in private funds for her severance deal (nearly all of the private donors later withdrew their pledges). Then she still filed for unemployment compensation. That was the closing act that most people will remember.
But Arlene Ackerman was the real thing, an old-school educator who practiced her faith by funneling district resources to the neediest areas. On balance, children here benefited by her tenure.
That's why I choose to remember her as the dedicated teacher and public-education zealot whom I met reading between the lines of her impressive resume.
Elmer Smith is a retired Daily News columnist.