Arlene C. Ackerman, Superintendent, Dies at 66

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Arlene C. Ackerman, who won national accolades for improving student performance as a schools superintendent in all three cities that hired her -- Washington, San Francisco and Philadelphia -- even as her bulldozer management style rankled union leaders and politicians, died on Saturday in Albuquerque. She was 66.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said the Rev. Kevin Johnson, a friend. She lived in Albuquerque.

Dr. Ackerman called herself "a warrior for children." She fought to improve the performance of disadvantaged students by allocating more resources and attention to lower-performing schools, and by replacing the worst with new ones, often charter schools. In 2010 she won the Richard R. Green Award, given by the Council of Great City Schools to the nation's top urban school leader.

Arne Duncan, the federal education secretary, said in a statement after her death that he had learned from Dr. Ackerman during his years as superintendent of the Chicago schools.

Dr. Ackerman improved students' test scores, including those in the most severely underperforming schools, in each of the three cities in which she presided. But in each city disagreements with elected school overseers prompted her to leave before her contract expired. Many attributed this to arrogance and an autocratic style; some called her Queen Arlene.

In San Francisco, "she was unwilling to listen to different points of view and not able to work with the entire Board of Education," Mark Sanchez, its president, said in an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2008.

Dr. Ackerman countered that she was unwilling to play politics. "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 campaign victory?" she said to The Inquirer.

When she became superintendent in Washington in 1998, Dr. Ackerman dismissed 30 principals and 600 administrative staff members in her first three months. When she took over in San Francisco in 2000, she said, she was appalled by financial shenanigans in the district's facilities division and called in the police and the F.B.I. She recovered $50 million in settlements from companies defrauding the schools.

Her first step in Philadelphia was to create a five-year blueprint that called for allocating more resources to needier schools and expansion of school choice. Three years of gains in test scores ensued.

Arlene Cassandra Randle was born in St. Louis on Jan. 10, 1947, the first of five children of a Protestant minister and a teacher. For Arlene, who was black, race was a constant consideration: after attending an all-black elementary school, she was one of only 50 black students in a 3,000-student high school. Dr. Ackerman recalled an episode in which a white girl lied in accusing her of threatening her with a knife. An assistant principal threatened to expel her, but her father, outraged, straightened things out.

When she was chosen for the National Honor Society, the white student who was to escort her into the induction ceremony refused. She entered alone.

Dr. Ackerman earned an undergraduate degree in elementary education from what is now Harris-Stowe State University, a historically black college in St. Louis. She earned master's degrees from Washington University and Harvard and a doctorate from Harvard, all in education. She taught elementary and middle school in a St. Louis suburb, rising to middle school principal and school district administrator.

In 1992, she was recruited to be an administrator in the Seattle school system. She went to Washington in 1997 as an assistant to the chief schools executive for the District of Columbia and became superintendent the next year. She was praised for working with parents and criticized for clashing with politicians.

In 2000, Dr. Ackerman was the first woman to be appointed superintendent of the San Francisco schools. In 2004 and 2005 San Francisco had the highest achievement of any urban school system in California. In 2005 the city was a finalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education, given annually to the best urban school district in the country.

From 2006 to 2008, Dr. Ackerman taught at Teachers College, Columbia University. She was superintendent in Philadelphia from 2008 to 2011. When she left, some criticized her severance package of $905,000 at a time when the schools were struggling. The criticism grew after she applied for unemployment.

Dr. Ackerman's two marriages ended in divorce. She is survived by her sons, Anthony and Matthew Antognoli; four granddaughters; and several brothers and sisters.

For all her political battles, Dr. Ackerman remained at heart a teacher. Once a week, she escaped her superintendent duties to read to kindergartners.

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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