This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Is Arlene Ackerman the best urban school superintendent in America?
In voting her the prize, considered the top honor in the country for urban education leadership, the citation noted her reform blueprint, Imagine 2014, her plan to increase resources to the neediest schools through weighted student funding, the Renaissance Schools turnaround initiative, and the creation of Parent University to increase community engagement.
It also mentioned that for the first time, more than half the city’s school children scored proficient or better on state tests.
Ackerman won "because of her leadership and commitment to urban kids, and her effectiveness in reform and improving academic achievement in urban schools," said Michael Casserly, the executive director of CGCS.
The award is voted each year by a 10-person committee comprised of past winners. This year the committee included the most recent superintendent winner, Pat Forgione of Austin, TX, as well as Beverly Hall, the superintendent in Atlanta, GA.
Casserly said that Ackerman, who prior to coming to Philadelphia was superintendent in San Francisco and Washington, DC, received the award "for her body of work, not just Philadelphia. But she was nominated by Philadelphia and obviously the selection committee placed special emphasis on her work there."
The state of urban schooling is receiving more attention today as a result of the documentary Waiting for Superman, which follows the saga of five children seeking to escape their low-achieving neighborhood schools by entering a lottery for admission to a charter. It lays much of the blame for urban school failure at the feet of teachers’ unions.
Ackerman initially signed a manifesto with other urban school leaders that emphasized the need to rid underperforming schools of incompetent teachers. Subsequently, though, she became the only urban school leader to renounce her signature and said she hadn’t read the final version.
Casserly said that the manifesto, and Ackerman’s subsequent efforts to distance herself from it, had nothing to do with the award process. "It is completely irrelevant to anyone’s consideration, not part of the equation," he said.
At the same time, Ackerman is certainly a less controversial choice than, say, Michelle Rhee, who resigned as Washington, DC superintendent after the defeat of her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, or Joel Klein, the chancellor of the New York City schools and the prime movers behind the statement. Neither has ever won the award.
Of course, Ackerman has had her own controversies. In an episode that received national attention, she was roundly criticized for her handling of the situation at South Philadelphia High School after Asian immigrant students were beaten by a group of mostly African Americans. She showed little empathy for the victims, suggested some Asian students may have been in gangs, downplayed the role of race or ethnicity in the incidents, and stuck for a long time with a principal who was clearly in over her head.
"Community engagement is always a challenge, even for the most successful and effective superintendents," said Casserly. "It’s a process that never quite ends. There’s no doubt that there are controversies in how effective any superintendent who may have been nominated for this award is. They all have something, some school, some issue, that at one point, there was controversy. But the overall body of her work is deep and wide enough that she was more than eligible for this award."
CGCS has been giving the award for 21 years, alternativing between school board members and superintendents. Among prior winners is former Philadelphia Superintendent Constance Clayton, who won in 1993.