Inquirer Editorial: A life dedicated to schools and children

CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: February 05, 2013

Former Philadelphia schools Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman should be remembered as a staunch advocate for children and public education.

A lifelong educator whose career spanned four decades, Ackerman died of pancreatic cancer Saturday at her home in Albuquerque, N.M. She was 66.

After stints heading the public schools in Washington and San Francisco, Ackerman arrived in Philadelphia in 2008 with impeccable credentials and great promise. In praising her selection to lead the country's eighth-largest school system, Mayor Nutter said the city had found "the best person for us."

Ackerman faced an uphill battle, however. She inherited a school system in which the dropout rate ranked among the nation's worst, half the students could not read or do math at grade level, and violence was commonplace - all problems that plague the district still.

During a tumultuous three-year tenure marred by controversy and her eventual ouster, Ackerman nevertheless made praiseworthy attempts to turn around failing schools. Her passion and unwavering commitment to children were commendable.

Like her predecessor Paul Vallas, Ackerman styled herself as a bold and visionary educator. Her "Imagine 2014" plan sought to radically restructure the worst schools and help the neediest students. The graduation rate and test scores climbed on her watch, though cheating allegations have left some of the latter in question. And her reform agenda won acclaim from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and her fellow administrators, whose Council of Great City Schools named her the nation's top urban school leader in 2010.

The gains Ackerman made, however, were often overshadowed by miscues. She mishandled racial tensions at South Philadelphia High School, which ultimately led to a U.S. Department of Justice settlement. And she was accused of inappropriately interfering with the awarding of a security-camera contract.

Ackerman frequently bumped heads with parents, union leaders, and politicians. She never seemed to develop the political and diplomatic skills the job demands, exhibiting an autocratic demeanor that earned her the nickname "Queen Arlene."

Her approach hampered and ultimately derailed her superintendency. She was essentially forced to resign in August 2011, taking a hefty $905,000 buyout to depart three years before her contract expired.

Ackerman later acknowledged that she no longer believed she could bring about the changes Philadelphia's schools needed to excel. But she deserves gratitude for devoting her life to that goal here and elsewhere.

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