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Ackerman honored for urban school leadership

by Dale Mezzacappa on Oct 22 2010 Posted in Latest news

Is Arlene Ackerman the best urban school superintendent in America?

The Council of the Great City Schools has just awarded her that status at its annual conference in Tampa, FL Thursday evening.

In voting her the prize, considered the top honor in the country for urban education leadership, the citation noted her reform blueprint, Imagine 2014, her plan to increase resources to the neediest schools through weighted student funding, the Renaissance Schools turnaround initiative, and the creation of Parent University to increase community engagement.

It also mentioned that for the first time, more than half the city's school children scored proficient or better on state tests.

Ackerman won "because of her leadership and commitment to urban kids, and her effectiveness in reform and improving academic achievement in urban schools," said Michael Casserly, the executive director of CGCS. 

The award is voted each year by a 10-person committee comprised of past winners. This year the committee included the most recent superintendent winner, Pat Forgione of Austin, TX, as well as Beverly Hall, the superintendent in Atlanta, GA.

Casserly said that Ackerman, who prior to coming to Philadelphia was superintendent in San Francisco and Washington, DC, received the award "for her body of work, not just Philadelphia. But she was nominated by Philadelphia and obviously the selection committee placed special emphasis on her work there."

The state of urban schooling is receiving more attention today as a result of the documentary Waiting for Superman, which follows the saga of five children seeking to escape their low-achieving neighborhood schools by entering a lottery for admission to a charter. It lays much of the blame for urban school failure at the feet of teachers' unions. 

Ackerman initially signed a manifesto with other urban school leaders that emphasized the need to rid underperforming schools of incompetent teachers. Subsequently, though, she became the only urban school leader to renounce her signature and said she hadn't read the final version.

Casserly said that the manifesto, and Ackerman's subsequent efforts to distance herself from it, had nothing to do with the award process. "It is completely irrelevant to anyone's consideration, not part of the equation," he said.

At the same time, Ackerman is certainly a less controversial choice than, say, Michelle Rhee, who resigned as Washington, DC superintendent after the defeat of her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, or Joel Klein, the chancellor of the New York City schools and the prime movers behind the statement. Neither has ever won the award.

Of course, Ackerman has had her own controversies. In an episode that received national attention, she was roundly criticized for her handling of the situation at South Philadelphia High School after Asian immigrant students were beaten by a group of mostly African Americans. She showed little empathy for the victims, suggested some Asian students may have been in gangs, downplayed the role of race or ethnicity in the incidents, and stuck for a long time with a principal who was clearly in over her head.

"Community engagement is always a challenge, even for the most successful and effective superintendents," said Casserly. "It's a process that never quite ends. There's no doubt that there are controversies in how effective any superintendent who may have been nominated for this award is. They all have something, some school, some issue, that at one point, there was controversy. But the overall body of her work is deep and wide enough that she was more than eligible for this award."

CGCS has been giving the award for 21 years, alternativing between school board members and superintendents. Among prior winners is former Philadelphia Superintendent Constance Clayton, who won in 1993.

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Comments (9)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/22/2010 - 16:29.

You have got to be kidding! I am writing to every person who might have had something to do with naming Ackerman as a top leader in urban education and reform. What has she done besides discouraging teachers and putting down her own teachers that are the ones that are carrying out "her plan". She has wrecked students' self esteem by mandating intervention programs that are to be used school-wide in empowerment schools which are aimed at lower grades and are designed for students who really need it as an intervention- not a whole class/school-wide program! I have never seen her respond effectively to any of her own teachers concerns or the students of Philadelphia who have expressed fear and concerns about their education and their educational environment. The only thing that she has down is lie about the success and data of improvement in test scores and reap in the monetary benefits of lying and decieving the community and leaders in Philadelphia

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/22/2010 - 19:03.

Evidently, they neglected to consult with the U.S. Department of Justice, who reccommended that Ackerman's handling of the South Phila. problem be investigated, and the terrorized workers at 440 and the terrorized teachers, students and parents, before making their decision

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 10/23/2010 - 15:07.

Maybe Ackerman explain why there are no new workbooks for the Corrective Reading and Math programs this year? Why are many remedial classes filled with 30 students? She told everyone that the classes were being reduced.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on Sun, 10/24/2010 - 15:21.

Why stick to any of her promises when the world thinks she is doing such a great job?? Let's just remdiate everyone and stop teaching kids to think - then they will not know there is anything wrong in Phialdelphia.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 10/23/2010 - 17:11.

The charter school lobby does it again. Not shocking at all. Same people that understand why a retraction from the statements supporting Michelle Rhee are a necessary part of Grand Strategy right now.

Look at where the CGCS gets its funding. These people just love the PSD because the state takeover and imposition of the SRC means that no one associated with the school district is accountable to the people. I find this situation repellent given that the PSD has a budget of $3.2 Billion and is seeking more. Thomas Jefferson and Co. wouldn't tolerate this fiasco, and neither should we.

Submitted by Helen Gym on Sun, 10/24/2010 - 12:00.

It's worth noting the tenure length of CGCS' leadership. Only 15 of its 65 members have served five years or more as heads of their districts. By my count, more than 70% have been appointed only in the last three years, including Dr. Ackerman. While Dr. Ackerman was lauded over the course of her leadership in DC, San Francisco and now Philadelphia, it still raises questions about how to evaluate a "top urban superintendent" when most track records are so slim.  

Additionally, Dr. Ackerman chaired CGCS' board as recently as the 2005-6 school year. She and SRC Chair Bob Archie serve on the CGCS board of directors. Since the story above indicates that the nomination came from Philadelphia, was this award a self-nomination?

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on Sun, 10/24/2010 - 13:57.

Considering Ackerman's track record of assuming responsibility for nothing (e.g. magnet admission, "the statement" which she claimed her underling signed, South Philly HS, ETC, ETC) unless it is positive (e.g. test scores), I wouldn't be surprised if Ackerman was nominated by herself and/or Archie. She is arrogant and self-righteous enough to nominate herself.

Submitted by radical educator (not verified) on Sun, 10/24/2010 - 12:05.

This is absurd. I am livid. Please visit my high school in Kensington and tell me what is worthy of praise.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on Sun, 10/24/2010 - 15:23.

Well said.

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