This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Veteran educator Dr. Arlene Ackerman arrives in Philadelphia at an opportune moment. The new mayor has placed education – especially reducing the dropout rate – at the top of his agenda. Ackerman has a strong endorsement from both Mayor Nutter and Gov. Rendell, who promises more dollars for education. Union leaders say they want to work with her, despite her rocky relationship with labor in San Francisco. And the public is rooting for school improvement.
Ackerman brings more than her years of experience in two tough school districts, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. She is a nationally recognized educational leader with a lifelong commitment to equity. While controversy dogged her in San Francisco, she starts in Philadelphia with good will and the wind at her back.
A word of advice is in order. Philadelphia has a history of new leaders who, in their zeal to bring in their own plans, throw out the baby with the bathwater. For instance, the Office of Restructured Schools was tossed by former Chief Academic Officer Gregory Thornton, though research later showed it was the most effective intervention launched under the state takeover.
After the whirlwind of initiatives under Paul Vallas, the relative calm of Tom Brady’s interim leadership has been a relief. While we cannot afford a lull, it is critical for Ackerman to evaluate and build on recent reforms. The standardized curriculum, the development of small high schools, the creation of “multiple pathways” to graduation through Project U-Turn, and various teacher recruitment projects are some key areas where Ackerman can build upon previous work. We hope that with her passion for equity she will find ways, elusive so far, to steer not just more resources but more high-quality teachers to the poorest schools.
There is no more important area for Ackerman to build on recent gains than public engagement. Determined parent, student, and community groups have fought for and won a seat at the table, insisting on greater openness, transparency, and dialogue with the District. They have made tremendous contributions in several areas: students have worked hard to overhaul difficult high schools, and parents have helped the District solve its budget woes.
The incoming CEO has been saying the right things about community involvement, but there’s some nervousness about how she has handled her critics in the past. We are often described as a city of tough critics. But if Ackerman is able to energize grassroots communities to get involved in meaningful ways, perhaps the nation will see how passionately Philadelphians want to see their schools succeed.