Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


Schools Days: Superintendent Arlene Ackerman

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By Dale Mezzacappa

Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is certainly a woman of ups and downs. Her December was marked by her embarrassing and troubling reaction to assaults against Asian students at South Philadelphia High School, in which she refused to meet with victims who still feared for their safety and appeared to make excuses for their mostly African American attackers.

Her January, on the other hand, is shaping up to be much better. Last Friday (Jan. 22) she stood next to Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan and praised a contract agreement with the PFT that contains provisions that would have been unthinkable a few short years ago. The contract sets up a much more robust teacher Thumbnail image for ackerman.jpgevaluation system, expands "site selection" so schools can choose their own teachers, allows for the replacement of at least half the teachers in chronically underperforming schools, and sets aside a pot of money to reward staff in schools that make dramatic improvements.  It offers the hope that Ackerman can get the freedom to make major changes in the way the lowest-performing schools are run, including a longer school day and year.

The contract also is likely to put Pennsylvania in a better position to win some of the $4 billion in federal Race to the Top money, awards predicated on state and district willingness to engage in reform strategies favored by the Obama administration, including school "turnaround." If Pennsylvania wins some of the Race to the Top money - 40 states have applied - Ackerman's star will certainly rise. It will also help pay for the extra teachers and services she intends to give to the poorest performing schools.

It is an interesting turn of events. Two years ago, Ackerman swept into Philadelphia with her own largely novice team and an apparent disinterest in keeping around many people experienced in understanding and navigating Philadelphia's quirks.   She was quick to label people who disagreed with her policies as anti-children.  She was blatant in her scorn for Heidi Ramirez, a School Reform Commission member who asked too many questions about her agenda. Ramirez quit. She was given the title of "Queen Arlene" by Philadelphia magazine.


Teacher dislike

While few superintendents are beloved by teachers, the disdain for her, evident at the PFT ratification meeting Thursday night (Jan. 21), is particularly deep. Unlike her predecessor Paul Vallas, Ackerman has had little interest in cultivating the established education advocacy community. She has nurtured political supporters, primarily legislators and some parents, who are vocal in saying that everyone else, including the SRC, should get out of her way and let her lead.

In the beginning, Ackerman also appeared to have a scornful attitude about the PFT. As the original August, 2008 contract deadline neared, she made it clear that she was willing to impose draconian contract terms on the famously recalcitrant union, powers granted the SRC under the state takeover of the district. The union can no longer strike - another right taken away by the takeover law - and that undoubtedly played a part as well. Instead, the district and the PFT began a round of on-and-off negotiations that lasted 17 months.

Even within the union movement, the PFT has had the reputation of being slow to get on the bandwagon of education reform. But this contract, for all its limitations, does represent a significant step. Although many of the changes were driven by Race to the Top, Ackerman got through the process with something of a relationship with Jordan and other PFT leaders whom she credits with making a good-faith effort to put students' interests first. The new peer evaluation system, called Peer Assistance and Review, is designed to increase teacher professionalism, and that is long overdue.

The contract is the second coup for Ackerman: the first one was bringing an end to the 40-year-old school desegregation case, the longest in the country. Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner and education advocacy groups who were allowed to become parties to the case accepted Ackerman's Imagine 2014 five-year strategic plan as a blueprint for reaching the ever-elusive goal of providing low-income African American and Hispanic students a quality education. (See Part Two for details about this settlement and the incidents at South Philadelphia High.)


Reform laundry list

Imagine 2014 is more of a laundry list than a strategic plan - putting every possible reform out there, some of them contradictory -- for instance, more autonomy for schools and more prescriptive curricula at the same time. Still, many of its initatives are worthwhile, especially the provision that increases the number of academic counselors in middle and high schools.

This is something that should have happened a long time ago. Fewer than 60 percent of students graduate high school on time in city high schools. In many neighborhood schools, students don't even know what courses they need to take and nobody makes sure that their rosters make sense. Now, counselor caseloads will decrease and they are required to meet each student to work out their individual academic plan.

Each superintendent leaves a legacy, no matter how controversial their tenure. For David Hornbeck, it was full-day kindergarten. Vallas left dozens of new, small-themed high schools. Regardless what happens next, the increase in counselors - codified in the contract - will certainly be one of most tangible things Ackerman leaves behind.

As for the more complex aspects of her reform efforts? Hard to tell. The contract calls for many joint PFT-administration committees to implement its most far-reaching provisions, and past history shows that those committees often reach stalemates and the heralded reforms never happen.

And will Ackerman, 62, be around to see through Imagine 2014 until the end? She came out of retirement to take this job, and claims that she isn't going anywhere, rumors to the contrary. All that can be said is that she has had a volatile tenure --built  on tenuous relationships and expensive, complex reform initiatives.

But that could change quickly.  Running an urban school district is one of the hardest jobs in the country.  There are few if any large urban systems that work for the majority of their students.  What Ackerman will really be able to accomplish is still very much up in the air.



School Days II: How Ackerman mishandled the incidents at South Philadelphia High School.

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