This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Arlene Ackerman, the incoming CEO of the School District, comes highly recommended from several prominent national education figures who assured representatives of Mayor Nutter and Gov. Rendell that she puts the interests of children first.
One of those was Vicki Phillips, the former superintendent in Lancaster and Portland, OR who also served as Rendell’s first secretary of education.
Phillips, who is now the education program director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told state officials who sought her opinion that fellow school leaders considered Ackerman as "among the top" superintendents in the country.
Ackerman was chosen in mid-February after a four-month search, in which she emerged as the only finalist who had ever led a school district before. Despite sentiment from some members of an advisory committee who wanted a wider pool of candidates before making a decision, the School Reform Commission moved to hire her after hearing encouraging words about her prior record, and after Rendell and Nutter signed off. Nutter spent hours discussing the position with her, according to one source.
She must fulfill teaching obligations this semester at Teachers College, Columbia University, before assuming the position in Philadelphia full time. As of press time, details of her contract had not been worked out. Meanwhile, interim CEO Tom Brady continues in that role.
Phillips’ recommendation, along with those of Kati Haycock of Education Trust and Michael Casserly of the Council of Great City Schools, was enough to allay fears raised by some that Ackerman shuts out critics and doesn’t reach out to the community. Ackerman faced vocal opposition to her leadership from several board members in San Francisco that led to her 2006 departure from her position as superintendent there.
Phillips did say, according to a source familiar with the conversations, that Ackerman is not afraid of "pushback" and can be "impatient" with people who know that the status quo isn’t working but still don’t want to change it. At the same time, Phillips said, such controversy "happens to every superintendent …who is not afraid to tackle things like struggling schools and low performance."
Ackerman, Phillips told officials, makes decisions for the "right reasons," is "biased towards action," and understands that the most important element of educational change is improving what happens between kids and teachers in a classroom.