This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Philadelphia is used to new school leaders coming to town and doing things their way. Arlene Ackerman is certainly continuing that tradition.
In her first few months, Ackerman has revamped the District’s leadership, increased the number of regions, and reorganized the central office. She has brought in many of her own people to top jobs, some familiar to Philadelphia but others brand-new to the city (See leadership team).
In her public pronouncements, she has made it clear that she intends to stress accountability for adults, equity for children, and outreach to parents. Rhetorically, she has pulled no punches.
“It makes me sick that far too many of our children come to our public schools and are locked into … environments where some adults have decided that they have little or no chance to succeed,” she told an assembly of principals in August.
To boost parental engagement, she has started hiring more than 100 “parent ombudsmen,” including one to serve in each of 85 low-performing schools. She is setting up an office for translation, and interpreters are now available at School Reform Commission meetings. And she has decreed that the central office remain open from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., requiring hundreds of central office workers to alter their schedules and causing some grumbling.
Ackerman takes over the District as it still struggles with balancing its budget while coping with the growing needs of students and families in an economic downturn. Philadelphia’s school year started with more than 150 teacher vacancies and no teacher contract.
The first career educator to run the District on a permanent basis since 1993, Ackerman is no stranger to controversy, which dogged her in both her previous superintendencies in San Francisco and Washington, DC. Hard-charging and unapologetic for stepping on toes, Ackerman has emphasized since her arrival that she didn’t take on the often thankless job of running a big urban school system a third time to dawdle and accept the status quo.
“Even though we celebrated six years of increased student achievement … all is not well with all of our children,” she told Philadelphia principals.
She followed with a series of appalling statistics, including that half of Black males and 59 percent of Latino males don’t graduate within six years. She admonished that the achievement gap between Whites and Asians on the one hand and Blacks and Latinos on the other is glaringly evident even in the high-performing schools.
She plans to hold each school and region to a new performance standard that will include not only academic achievement, but five areas, including operational efficiency and parental, teacher, and student satisfaction. The indicators, modeled on those used in other districts including New York and Chicago, are still being worked out but will be “realistic,” and targets will be tailored to each school. Schools will have some flexibility in choosing particular goals, such as success with Advanced Placement tests or a reduction in the achievement gap.
Ackerman increased the number of regions from eight to 11, re-establishing the recently eliminated Southwest and Central East regions and creating offices for comprehensive high schools and for alternative schools.
To fill the ranks of regional superintendents, she recruited three leaders from outside the city and promoted two veteran principals, Michael Silverman and La Verne Wiley. They each moved up after spending just one year at a high school plagued by revolving-door principals, Silverman at Germantown and Wiley at High School of the Future.
She designated 85 “empowerment schools,” the schools with the worst performance on No Child Left Behind measures, which will get extra personnel and other interventions. In addition to a parent ombudsman, all will get extra professional development, a person to advise students, and additional volunteers. Four of 15 new “regional response teams” will concentrate on these schools, doing quarterly reading and math assessments and monthly inspections.
The 23 schools identified as the most troubled of the empowerment schools – including six just taken back from private providers – will receive extra staff including a social services liaison, a school-based instructional specialist, a full-time substitute teacher, a part-time retired principal, and increased nursing services, according to current plans.
Ackerman said her moves are meant to steer as many resources as possible directly into schools and classrooms – a mantra Philadelphia has heard during prior administrative shuffles by new leaders.
In one move that triggered dissension, she summarily eliminated more than 200 academic coach positions in June, explaining that the job description was vague and the title applied to people with many different duties.
Among the initial casualties were two central office arts administrators who held the title of “coach”, but had been important service coordinators and liaisons to the arts community. After an outcry by some prominent arts organizations, the two were restored to similar positions, but Ackerman said that she “wasn’t influenced by the outpouring.”
Since she was first named, Ackerman has pushed hard on issues of equity. She said she intended to pursue “weighted student funding,” a politically charged initiative that could significantly change how Philadelphia’s stretched dollars are allocated to schools. It would use a formula that factors in the needs of individual students, including poverty and English language proficiency.
She has openly questioned the creation of so many small high schools under Paul Vallas. In talking about them, Ackerman has emphasized not the higher achievement and reduced violence that mark many, but what she describes as inequitable access to all students and unequal resources available in different small schools.
“I like small schools,” she said in an interview. But all don’t necessarily need separate buildings, “and if we’re not careful they can become elitist in terms of who gets in.” She said, however, that she has no intention of closing any.
She cited Kensington CAPA as a small high school exemplifying the inequities. “I was appalled they were in a ‘school for arts’ with no art or music room, with their only hope that in a few years the District would build a new school,” she said. The student group Youth United for Change has been pushing the District to give more resources to the small schools carved out of Kensington High School in 2005.
While issuing her rhetorical blasts and whirlwind changes, Ackerman has also exuded charm in numerous visits to schools, winning over teachers and principals in more intimate meetings.
“I’m impressed by her warmth and directness,” said Robert Mack, principal of Widener Memorial School and a 35- year veteran of the system, as Ackerman chatted up teachers and students the week before school opened. “She’s putting children first. The message is coming across loud and clear.”