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Dr. Ackerman, actions speak louder than words

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The 2009-2010 school year was not such a good year for Dr. Ackerman. Problems developed as soon as the schoolhouse doors opened. The hurried implementation of the Corrective Reading and Math programs did not unfold smoothly. Materials were late arriving to schools, rosters assignments were repeatedly reshuffled, and there was little professional development.

Early in December, horrific incidents of violence erupted at South Philadelphia High School. Students were attacked and beaten by other students. Allegations were made that the attacks were racially motivated. The victims of this incident claimed that school personnel did not adequately act to protect them.

But Dr. Ackerman did not personally involve herself in this crisis until eight days after the incident occurred. That is when she first went to the school. Initially, she refused to meet with the students who were victimized by this assault. Later she arranged to bus a group of students from South Philadelphia High School to a School Reform Commission meeting to show the positive face of this school’s student body. But in doing so she neglected to include any of the students who had been seriously aggrieved.

Noticeably absent from Ackerman’s response was a clear focus on supporting and responding to the student victims of this situation. This is a surprising response from a leader who preaches the mantra that everything she does is for and about the children.

Dr. Ackerman’s approach to handling the problems of South Philadelphia High School stands in sharp contrast to the leadership style of Saliyah Cruz, the former principal of West Philadelphia High School. Ms. Cruz assumed the stewardship of West Philadelphia at a time when the school was in complete chaos. In a three-year period, she demonstrated how to effectively begin the process of turning around a large, deeply troubled and academically deficient urban high school. She did so by creating an educational community that was anchored in trust and respect for students, teachers, and parents.

West Philadelphia High was poised to move to greater levels of achievement under Cruz’s leadership. But this will not happen now that Dr. Ackerman has abruptly reassigned her to another school. Cruz’s departure has demoralized this West Philadelphia school community and undermined the progress that has been accomplished at this school.

What is most notable concerning Dr. Ackerman’s mishandling of controversial issues is that she does not acknowledge personal responsibility for her decisions when they appear to be misguided. This was demonstrated when her administrative team suggested a plan to change the admission criteria for the School District’s magnet schools. When this plan was made public, an intense public outcry was directed at Dr. Ackerman. She responded by claiming to have no prior knowledge of the plan. Two of her top aides accepted the blame for acting on this matter without Dr. Ackerman’s consent. She then declared that the new admission policy was dead on arrival.

Denying and shifting blame to her underlings has been Dr. Ackerman’s regular response to any problem. Perhaps these pronounced leadership traits explain the constant turnover and reorganization of Dr. Ackerman’s senior staff.

Dr. Ackerman frequently states that she holds every employee of the School District to a high standard of accountability. It is reasonable then to assume that this standard she advocates should also apply to her. The problems cited above should all be items listed in the “needs improvement” column of her annual evaluation.

In spite of Dr. Ackerman’s multiple controversies this past year, the School Reform Commission has chosen to reward her with a $65,000 performance bonus on top of her already lavish compensation. Perhaps they are merely doing the bidding of Mayor Nutter, Governor Rendell, and State Representative Dwight Evans. These three prominent elected officials have been generous in their praise of Dr. Ackerman’s job performance.

Dr Ackerman doesn’t need politician cheerleaders. What she does need is the benefit of good constructive criticism of her growing number of missteps. This feedback should come from the elected representatives of her employers, the citizens of our city and state.

Our mayor, governor, and other representatives of government can most effectively assist her by instructing the School Reform Commission to hold her accountable for her actions.

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