School & District Management

Philadelphia Chief Dares Commission to Fire Her

By Kristen A. Graham, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Pa. (MCT) — August 19, 2011 5 min read
Philadelphia schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, center, gets a standing ovation after addressing principals gathered at Lincoln High School for their annual convocation, in Philadelphia on Thursday. Ackerman's supporters note that she has boosted test scores, introduced promising reforms and created parent outreach programs. But, as she gets ready to begin her fourth full school year in the city, Ackerman has seen her support steadily eroding.

Making a defiant, emotional stand Thursday, embattled Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman dared her bosses to make a decision on her future—now.

“Sentence me. I dare you. Or set me free. But I admit to you today that I am guilty. Guilty of just being me,” she told hundreds of Philadelphia School District principals who gathered for the close of a three-day professional development meeting.

Ackerman pointedly entered the Lincoln High School auditorium to the Sade song “Is It A Crime,” and made its title the theme of her speech.

“Is it a crime to stand up for children instead of stooping down into the political sandbox and selling our children for a politician’s victory?” Ackerman asked the audience, apparently referencing those with whom she’s fallen out of favor.

Ackerman, who also recited the Maya Angelou poem “Still I Rise,” said she had struggled with “challenge” and “lots of controversy” in recent weeks, but recently arrived at an epiphany.

“Once I understood that being guilty of standing up for children was a good thing, I stood just a little taller, held my head a little higher, and I felt liberated, liberated knowing that whatever happens to me, I have touched the future of thousands of young people in Philadelphia, and for the better,” Ackerman said in a strong, clear voice that she maintained for her speech of about 10 minutes.

That revelation made her do a “happy dance,” she said, and then she led one—swaying, clapping, encouraging her audience to sing along with her to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody.”

The audience gave Ackerman a standing ovation. She wiped away tears.

It has been widely rumored that Ackerman is on her way out as superintendent. As The Inquirer reported Thursday, high-ranking business leaders have received calls asking them to donate to a charitable education organization that would contribute money to help buy out Ackerman’s contract.

She has denied that she is in buyout talks “right now.”

Speaking to reporters after the principals’ meeting, Ackerman said that she did not know whether School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie still supported her.

“I’m superintendent today and I hope to be superintendent tomorrow. We’ll just have to see what happens. This is something that’s not just my decision,” she said.

The district’s 155,000 students are set to report to schools on Sept. 6, and it’s important that the focus is there, Ackerman said.

“I think it’s important for this school system that we move on,” she said. “I’m at peace with whatever decision they make.”

She said she was touched by the warm reception she received at the annual leadership meeting and that “it doesn’t matter what other people outside of this arena think of me. In this room today, it said everything.”

Ackerman said that she was pleased with the number of schools that reached standards set for them under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

According to preliminary data announced Thursday, 110 schools, or 43 percent of the district’s 258 schools, made “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) in 2011.

That was down from 158 of 267 schools, or 59 percent hitting AYP last year. (The district has shrunk because of closings and charter organizations taking over some schools.)

Officials said they expected the AYP drop. Pennsylvania made it tougher for schools to meet their goals, upping targets in both reading and math.

“I didn’t even expect 110,” Ackerman said. “I was happy with 110.”

Despite the AYP drop, officials announced earlier this year that overall student achievement was up for the ninth straight year in the district.

Math scores rose 3 percentage points over last year, and reading scores rose 2 percentage points.

Altogether, 81 elementary schools, 12 middle schools and 17 high schools made AYP.

Two Promise Academies—district turnaround schools that receive extra resources and have longer days and years—made AYP. It was the first time doing so for both Dunbar and Potter-Thomas, two of the district’s inaugural six Promise Academies.

Three more will open in September.

High schools typically have the toughest time making AYP, and most of the schools that do so are magnet schools. But three neighborhood high schools, which accept all students, hit the mark—Lamberton, Kensington Creative and Performing Arts, and Washington High Schools.

Kensington CAPA was singled out, along with Webster Elementary, for their progress.

Debora Carrera, principal of the small high school, said the school improved by building relationships.

The strategy worked.

Over the past few years, the school nearly quadrupled its math scores, from 9 percent to 32 percent passing, and raised its reading scores more than 15 points, from 22 percent to 39 percent passing, Carrera said.

It upped its graduation rate from 48 to 67 percent, she said.

One student who spoke at the conference said his teachers “gave us no choice but to learn.” There was Saturday school, a test prep boot camp, plenty of extracurricular but above all, a faculty that felt like family, he said.

Webster, a K-5 school in Kensington, has made AYP four years running despite having 100 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Principal Christine Borelli-Connor said that progress has been possible because the school uses data to help inform lessons, because it uses small groups and literature that motivates students to read, because reading and math is integrated into every class, even gym.

“It’s really acknowledging the fact that our students have challenges, and if we teach them all the same way it will not work,” Borelli-Connor told the audience.

The celebration came after officials announced earlier this week that 13 district schools may bear further investigation amid a statewide probe of possible cheating on 2009 standardized tests. Analyses of the 2010 and 2011 tests are expected soon, as well.

Ackerman warned against reading too much into a 2009 report, which flagged schools for possible testing improprieties.

“We’re talking about erasure marks,” Ackerman said. “We’re not talking about cheating parties or, you know, wholesale cheating in a school or in a classroom.”

Copyright (c) 2011, The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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