“Queen Arlene,” they called her.
And now, she’s been dethroned.
After a tumultuous career as superintendent of the Philadelphia public school system, Ackerman last week took $905,000 to leave.
In the past few days, there has been almost as much buzz about Ackerman’s departure as there was about Hurricane Irene. Could we compare the two on damage?
Now, questions remain for the school district looking to find someone to fill the seat Ackerman left behind.
The damages done under Ackerman’s reign were easy to point out, not least of which was a school system faced with a $629 million budget gap and about 1,500 laid-off teachers.
With school Tuesday, Sept. 6, the district is still reeling from the impact.
But Ackerman also had her fans, and her five-year, Imagine 2014 plan would have overhauled the school system, while the Promise Academy program helped turn around some of the city’s lowest-performing schools.
That confused legacy has left one of the nation’s largest school districts aimlessly drifting leading up the first day of school, and those most impacted are left with little recourse.
“I think it’s unfortunate because no organization wants to be without a leader,” said Jennifer MacNeill, president of the Home and School Association for Fairmount’s Bache-Martin Elementary. “But, I’m not shocked by her departure.”
In discussing what Ackerman brought to the district with her five-year plan, MacNeill said there were “pros” to Ackerman’s time in office, but “the cons outweigh the pros.”
“Her focus was those Promise Academies. The neighborhood schools just weren’t a focus for her,” she said.
As a school that pulls students from Fairmount, Spring Garden and Francisville, Bache-Martin, MacNeill said, needed just as much support and funding as other schools, but she never felt the district provided that backing.
“We are in pretty good shape, but that’s because of this parents group and because of our partnerships” with local businesses and community groups, said MacNeill. “It’s been up to the principals and parents to organize resources in the city … For us, the kids will make out pretty well ecause of these partnerships.”
At Fishtown’s Alexander Adaire School, Tina Mil, president of the school’s home and school association, said not only did she feel Ackerman focused on pet projects, she kept money from schools like Adaire that need it for basic items.
“She wasn’t putting the money where it was supposed to go,” she said. “Our classrooms don’t even have air conditioning.”
Through budget cuts, Mil said, the school lost its vice principal, a parents ombudsman, students liaison and art and music workshops.
Mil said her son suffers from asthma and Asperger Syndrome, and she counted on the school nurse to make sure he got the necessary medication. But, also due to cutbacks, Mil said the nurse is only on staff three days a week, meaning the other days, she worries that her son won’t be able to get medication if he has an asthma attack.
Also, the curtains in the school auditorium are ratty and need to be replaced, but Mil said the school district will not pay for it and parents can’t come up with enough funds to replace the worn fabric.
“There have been so many cutbacks,” Mil said. “Her decisions and her actions have me asking ‘where’s all the money going?’”
In the future, she said she hopes the administration, including current acting superintendant Leroy Nunery, will tour the schools, see what is needed and make needed adjustments instead of following the course forged by Ackerman.
“They need to come in and really take a look at what each school is getting,” said Mil. “It’s things like [the cut programs] that we need. We are needy. We are a great school and we aren’t the only school like this.”
Ackerman’s pet projects were also a concern for Angelina Williams, president of the home and school association for Spring Garden’s Masterman School.
Williams said that Ackerman brought both successes and failures to the district. However, when asked to detail her take on positives of Ackerman’s time in office, Williams was at a loss for words.
“It’s hard to find successes, maybe if you give me a second,” she said as she detailed her concerns with the district.
Under Ackerman, Williams said, the school district spent money on projects like the Promise Academies plan that were far-reaching and transformative to some schools, but “didn’t look at the real problems.”
“We need to make sure kids have books,” said Williams. “This might be kind of vague, but I want [the school district] to look at basic things before they spend money on these big projects.”
Williams said she hopes the school district learns to build on its success like a pyramid — by building a sound foundation where all schools can afford basic needs, like school books and other materials while also being able to provide art and music classes.
“And, we need to look at ‘are children really learning or did they just score high on some test?,’” she asked. “I want them really learning. I really want someone in there who will prioritize schools.”
Williams said it was telling that not only snarky media professionals and upset workers referred to Ackerman as “Queen Arlene”; she knew there was a problem because children at the school called her that as well.
“You know it’s kind of bad once the kids are calling her that, too,” said Williams.
Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215-354-3124 or email@example.com