Philadelphia Metropolis


Arlene Ackerman's Smile

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 Arlene Ackerman must have been smiling through gritted teeth as she sat next to President Obama on Tuesday, listening to him wax poetic about the wonderfulness of Philadelphia's Masterman School.

Later, Ackerman professed to reporters "I love the school," though it was the first time the superintendent had ever visited the school, which is one of the system's gems.

In reality, Ackerman is not a fan of so-called special admission schools such as Masterman and she makes no secret of it. In her mind, the schools are political creations designed to appease white parents and give them their own niche within the system.

Thumbnail image for Arlene Ackerman.jpgAlso, she feels that the district's 17 special admission high schools take resources that should be going to the district's 32 neighborhood high schools, such as South Philly, Overbrook, Northeast, etc.


I interviewed Ackerman earlier this year while I was working on a report on the schools under contract with Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative. (You can find a full copy of the report here.)  She carefully picked her way through the topic, as you can see from this quote:

 "I want to be careful because people accuse me of not liking the special admit schools...I understand the purpose and I don't even argue with that, but don't take away from Peter's kids to pay Paul.  What happened is that we have now created these schools at the expense of large comprehensive high schools.  We have comprehensive high schools that don't have journalism classes, or music of art or choirs or band --the things I took for granted 40 years ago, when I was in high school."

Special admits, as they are called in the district (though some administrators privately call them "Gucci schools") were originally created as magnet schools when the district was under court order to desegregate. The idea was that they would attract a good racial mix of students by emphasizing college prep or specialized subjects, such as the arts, science, agriculture, etc.

They are called special admits because you have to pass a test or go though an entrance interview process before you are admitted, unlike neighborhood high schools where you can walk in and be enrolled.

During the Paul Vallas years, the district expanded the special admits from a dozen to 17. Twenty-one percent of the district's high school students now attend these schools.

Vallas, who was ever the politician, was on a mission to keep and attract middle-class parents in the district, so to him special admits equaled "good."

Ackerman has a different view. Her focus is on the lowest performing schools - which include most of the city's general high schools -- and she is convinced the special admits  rob those schools of students and resources.

What she didn't realize was that messing with special admits can be done only at great risk.  They have a vocal constituency that happens to include a good number of the city's elite, white and black.  The mayor's daughter, for instance, goes to Masterman and was in the audience while the President spoke.

Ackerman discovered this reality the hard way.  Earlier this year, word leaked that the district was considering revamping the way these schools admit, putting more power to select in the hands of the central administration, which would draw up new criteria on admission.  In other words, take the "special" out of special admission.

Within 24 hours, Ackerman had hastily retreated. She denied any knowledge of the plan and said it was the work of overzealous aides. No one who knows how the school district operates believes Ackerman's assertion that she did not know about the plan. No one.

In listening to Ackerman, it became clear to me that she sees these schools through a racial prism. She talked as it they were majority white.
They are not. The magnets did what the courts intended: they attracted a racial mix.  The special admits are majority minority: 52 percent black, 13 percent Asian, 10 percent Latino and 23 percent white.

The special admits are not segregated by race, but some are segregated by class. Special admits are the places middle-class white, black, Latino and Asian parents want to send their kids.  These are parents who have the savvy and the will to work the district's bureaucracy to make sure their kid gets in.

As Vallas realized, giving the middle class a stake in the district is a good thing.  The schools need all the political support they can get. Masterman was good enough to draw the attention and get the blessing of the President of the United States.

But, Obama has come and gone and Ackerman remains.  If I were a parent with a kid in one of these schools, I'd be wary of what her smile means.




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