School & District Management

Urban Education

October 25, 2000 2 min read

Settling In: Arlene Ackerman’s life somehow was supposed to get easier when she left the superintendent’s job in Washington to become the schools chief in San Francisco.

After all, she now answers to one school board, rather than the various governing bodies that vied for influence over schools in the District of Columbia, where she was the top administrator till this past July.

This fall, though, the seven-member San Francisco school board rejected a plan to give her carte blanche to hire central-office employees without its approval.

Explaining the vote, board President Mary T. Hernandez said, “It wasn’t a matter of confidence, but a response to how our constituents want us to operate.”

Ms. Ackerman downplayed the vote: “At this point, I feel the board will back my decisions.”

It seems that consolidating power over the 60,000-student district is, in fact, the least of her worries.

The new superintendent’s to-do list includes: cutting $23 million in spending, ironing out irregularities in the contracting system, and raising minority student performance. (Not to mention keeping a majority on the board with four seats up for grabs on Nov. 7.)

Ms. Ackerman faced similar challenges in the nation’s capital. There, she lowered central-office spending from 15 percent to 5 percent of the system’s budget, in part by reassigning teachers from headquarters to the classroom—something she is now directing 126 San Francisco educators to do.

Meanwhile, faced with declining enrollment in her new district, Ms. Ackerman has cut 36 teaching jobs. “In Washington, there was a process of consolidating teachers based on enrollment,” she said. “Here, we’ve been losing students, but not teachers.”

Ms. Ackerman will take another page from her Washington playbook when she introduces a principal-evaluation system next month.

The plan will link principals’ contracts to student performance, and give cash rewards to schools that raise test scores, close minority achievement gaps, and increase parental participation.

“My goal is to start rewarding excellence,” the superintendent said. “I did a lot of listening here, and one thing that surprised me was the lack of an objective evaluation process.”

A good sign is that the board president gives Ms. Ackerman an A for communications skills.

“I heard one parent say that she’s a breath of fresh air,” Ms. Hernandez said. “She goes out of her way to meet with parents and is a good listener.”

—Robert C. Johnston rjohns@epe.org

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