Ackerman gets an F

With school set to be­gin Tues­day, former school chief Ar­lene Ack­er­man’s leg­acy is a troubled top­ic.

“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 hmit­  

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