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Ackerman’s legacy debated

After three years and a nearly $1 million buyout, the embattled schools chief steps down.

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

After a summer filled with rumor and speculation, the District announced on August 22 that Arlene Ackerman was stepping down as superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia. Leroy Nunery was immediately named acting superintendent.

Under the separation agreement, Ackerman received a controversial $905,000 payout. Her contract had just been extended months earlier by the School Reform Commission, and so she may have been owed as much as $1.5 million under those terms.

For weeks leading up to the official announcement – made by Mayor Michael Nutter during a press conference – Ackerman supporters alleged a plan was in the works to oust the embattled schools chief while the mayor and SRC sat silent, never explaining why they wanted to see her go.

Ackerman was not so reticent. She spoke with three media outlets after her departure and described the political missteps around full-day kindergarten and Martin Luther King High School (see timeline) that she said led to her exit.

Under Ackerman’s leadership, the District embarked on a new strategic plan, Imagine 2014; launched an ambitious Renaissance Schools turnaround effort that was praised by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; undertook a comprehensive facilities master planning process; and saw a ninth straight year of test score gains. The District also racked up an enormous budget gap of more than $600 million and faced a federal civil rights suit for failure to address anti-Asian violence.

Here, several members of the education community reflect on Ackerman’s legacy.

  • Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers:
    "Her legacy is the deficit she’s left the District with. Ackerman strained [relationships] with employees in the School District as well as with elected officials and people in communities. The attitude she exhibited over and over [was] that she knew what was best and did not avail herself of any advice or opinions of others … the lack of people being able to voice their concerns."
  • The Rev. LeRoi Simmons, clergy and community activist in Germantown:
    "I don’t agree with everything she did, but … there needed to be something done to put more resources, more effort, and more attention to the schools performing below basic."
  • Sandra Dungee Glenn, former chair of the School Reform Commission:
    "She’s tackled some of the more difficult parts of education reform and I don’t think she’s received due credit for [it]. The teachers’ contract is one of the more progressive contracts, taking a significant step away from being totally seniority-based. It improved teacher evaluation and teacher development as well. … She also took on the challenge of rightsizing the District. … I am sorry to see her go under these circumstances."
  • Venard Johnson, community activist:
    "Her main legacy was standing up for Black children so that they have the opportunity to get educated like all other children. … Also, her willingness to take on the high schools as part of the reforms by turning University City and Vaux into Promise Academies. And her outreach to parents, her willingness to have conversations with parents. Those three things separate her from other superintendents."
  • Phil Goldsmith, former interim District CEO:
    "I think on the positive side, her emphasis on parents was very good. Schools can’t succeed unless parents get more involved. She had a good approach to engaging parents on educational issues. Unfortunately, I think the rest of her legacy was one of divisiveness, enormous instability, and fiscal chaos. And her tenure has exposed the SRC, either the individuals serving on it or the governance structure itself, as very ineffective and weak."
  • Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth:
    "I do think she raised the issues very clearly of the need to do something extra for the most downtrodden among us, but she also was very divisive. She made a lot of very educationally good decisions, but her control needs undermined some of her educational ideas. In the end, the stirring up of the divisiveness was very regrettable."
  • State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, D-Philadelphia:
    "Ackerman brought a vision and energy that challenged a stagnant paradigm and drafted a roadmap of where our children should go and could be."