A controversial schools leader remembered, celebrated

Posted: March 04, 2013

Arlene C. Ackerman, who died of pancreatic cancer at age 66 last month, didn't want a Philadelphia memorial service. Her tenure in the city was often a struggle, its final months a bitter public battle.

But although the colorful, controversial former schools chief had her detractors, there were also many who loved her. Over 200 gathered at Bright Hope Baptist in North Philadelphia on Sunday to hail her "warrior heart," as former School Reform Commission Chairwoman Sandra Dungee Glenn put it.

Dungee Glenn fought hard to lure Ackerman away from Columbia University, where the longtime teacher, principal and big-city superintendent was a professor of education until 2008, when she signed a deal to come to Philadelphia.

"She would say, 'Sandra, I'm only here for the babies," said Dungee Glenn.

Sylvia Simms, a district grandparent who now sits on the School Reform Commission, grew emotional as she remembered Ackerman to the assembled crowd. Ackerman fought for programs for parents, launching a Parent University and hosting popular monthly superintendent's roundtables where she would talk for hours to the hundreds of parents who gathered to tell her about their children's schools.

"She gave us hope, love and wisdom, and opened doors for us to see what a quality education for our children would look like," said Simms, founder of the Parent Power organization.

Ackerman moved to Albuquerque, N.M. after she left Philadelphia to be near her two sons and four granddaughters. Among the others here who offered remembrances of her were Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown; music mogul Kenny Gamble, founder of Universal Companies Inc.; and Francisco Duran, a former Philadelphia assistant superintendent and now the schools chief in Trenton. Current superintendent William R. Hite Jr. was in attendance but did not speak.

Ackerman's sometimes rocky tenure was not avoided at the service. In one point, Rev. Terrence Griffith, head of Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, prayed "for our city, oh Lord; we repent for not being kind to Arlene Ackerman."

She departed in August 2011 with a $905,000 payout, under intense scrutiny for her management style and fiscal policies.

But Rev. Kevin Johnson, a close friend and the pastor of Bright Hope, Ackerman's congregation in Philadelphia, reminded those who mourned - and celebrated - the education advocate that she never apologized for who she was and how she ran the district.

"I thank God," Johnson said, "that she came to Philadelphia and they couldn't take her out. She kept on rising," Johnson said.

Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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