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Arlene Ackerman, 66, dies of cancer

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

Former Philadelphia schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who led the District from 2008 to 2011, died Saturday of pancreatic cancer. She was 66.

Ackerman had been living in Albuquerque, N.M., since she accepted a controversial buyout of her contract after leaving the District in August 2011. Before coming to Philadelphia, she had served as a superintendent in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

Raised in St. Louis, where she attended a racially segregated elementary school, she was a lifelong educator who began her career as a teacher in 1968.

Ackerman’s tenure in Philadelphia was highlighted by her Imagine 2014 strategic plan and her Renaissance Schools program for turning around low-performing schools. With support from federal stimulus dollars, she was able to launch new initiatives like expanded guidance counseling, an extensive summer program, a Parent University, and reduced class size in early grades. In 2010, she was honored as the nation’s top superintendent by the Council of Great City Schools.

But it was a turbulent period almost from the start, including public clashes with SRC members and then protests of her handling of attacks on Asian students at South Philadelphia High School in 2009. She became a polarizing figure but rallied supporters with her focus on issues of parent involvement and racial equity. It wasn’t until the summer of 2011 that the School Reform Commission and Mayor Nutter began to negotiate her departure, over the strong objections of her backers.

(See "Ackerman’s tenure in Philadelphia: Key events 2008-11")

Local officials issued statements about Ackerman on Saturday. From Mayor Nutter, who was involved in the decision to bring her to Philadelphia:

Arlene Ackerman was a truly committed educator who demonstrated a profound passion for students and in particular the most disadvantaged students in our city. Through her leadership, Philadelphia took on the difficult, long-neglected task of turning around low-performing schools. Today, thousands of Philadelphia students are getting a better education thanks to her vision and advocacy. Her educational legacy will live on for many years through the initiatives that she championed. Our prayers are with her family and friends.

From District Superintendent William Hite:

On behalf of The School District of Philadelphia, I would like to extend my deepest sympathies to the family of Dr. Arlene Ackerman and all who loved her. Dr. Ackerman devoted her life to children and public education, and in doing so, encouraged countless other individuals to commit their lives to teaching, learning and leading. For that, we are grateful. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and colleagues.

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