Making a defiant and emotional stand Thursday, embattled Philadelphia School 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 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 the 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 has 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. The Inquirer reported Thursday that high-ranking business leaders had 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 she did not know whether School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. still supported her.
"I'm superintendent today, and I hope to be superintendent tomorrow. We'll just have to see what happens," she said. "This is something that's not just my decision."
The district's 155,000 students are set to report to schools 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 that 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 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, 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 of 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 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.
Kensington CAPA was singled out, along with Webster Elementary, for progress.
Debora Carrera, principal of the small high school, said the school improved by building relationships.
Over the last few years, the school nearly quadrupled its math scores, from 9 percent to 32 percent passing, and raised its reading scores more than 15 percentage points, from 22 percent to 39 percent passing, Carrera said.
It upped its graduation rate from 48 percent to 67 percent, she said.
One student who spoke at the conference said his teachers "gave us no choice but to learn." There were Saturday school, a test-prep boot camp, plenty of extracurricular study, 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 100 percent of its students qualifying for free and reduced lunch programs.
Principal Christine Borelli-Connor said 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, and because reading and math are 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," Borelli-Connor told the audience, "it will not work."
The celebration came after officials announced this week that 13 district schools might undergo 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 that 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."
or @newskag on Twitter. Read her blog, "Philly School Files,"
For a list of the schools that made "Adequate Yearly Progress," go to www.philly.