School & District Management

Arlene Ackerman, Veteran Superintendent, Dies at 66

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 04, 2013 2 min read
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Arlene C. Ackerman, one of the nation’s highest-profile big city school chiefs and an unwavering advocate for equity in public schooling, died Saturday in Albuquerque, N.M. She was 66.

Ms. Ackerman, who most recently served as the schools chief in Philadelphia, died from pancreatic cancer just a few months after being diagnosed, according to media reports. She had also served stints as superintendent in San Francisco, the District of Columbia, and as an assistant superintendent in Seattle.

“Arlene Ackerman was a tireless champion of urban public education and a relentless warrior on behalf of urban children,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, in a statement. Mr. Casserly said Ms. Ackerman’s 45 years in public schooling “stands alone as one of the nation’s most important contributions to urban schools.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a statement called Ms. Ackerman a “friend and mentor,” whom he had looked up to and learned from in his years as superintendent in Chicago.

Known for her decisive—some people found it imperious—leadership style, Ms. Ackerman faced some of the most vexing issues in public schooling. In San Francisco, she undertook a reform strategy to raise achievement by funneling more money and the best teachers into the city’s lowest-performing schools, an agenda she also followed in Philadelphia. Achievement went up, but Ms. Ackerman was criticized for not collaborating more with parents and the teachers’ union.

While in the District of Columbia, from 1998-2000, she steered the system through its takeover by a federal control board while introducing numerous changes to funding, instructional strategies, and central office staffing.

Her most recent superintendency, in Philadelphia, ended bitterly in 2011 when the city’s appointed school board asked her to resign and bought out her five-year contract for $905,000, with more than half paid by the school district, and the balance by private funders. That severance sparked widespread criticism in a city that was saddled with tight budgets.

In an interview with Education Week shortly after she resigned the top Philadelphia post, Ms. Ackerman said “political miscalculations,” not job performance, had forced her to step down.

In 2010, Ms. Ackerman won the Council of the Great City Schools’ award for the nation’s best urban superintendent. She was also a mentor to many other upcoming school administrators, including in her work with both the urban superintendents’ program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and through the superintendents’ academy run by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

Photo: Arlene Ackerman, the former Philadelphia schools chief who died Feb. 2, photographed during a 2009 meeting with advisers. (Tom Gralish for Education Week/File)

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.