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Visit by school district's new chief offers something to chew on

For about half an hour yesterday, the hottest eating establishment in all of Philadelphia was the Overbrook High School cafeteria.

For about half an hour yesterday, the hottest eating establishment in all of Philadelphia was the Overbrook High School cafeteria.

Not for the ambience, location or even the pizza.

The students were buzzing because on her first official day on the job, school district Chief Executive Officer Arlene Ackerman came to lunch.

Ackerman, who previously ran the school districts in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., weaved her way through the crowded cafeteria meeting and greeted the teenagers, who gave her an earful before she could get a bite.

"I told her we need cleaner bathrooms, better lunches and more academic programs," said 10th-grader Latoya Wiley, 16.

"I would just hope that she can possibly help us raise money for more instruments, more arts programs and more singing programs," said 11th-grader Khristen Clifton.

"Hopefully, before I graduate there will be a change," added Clifton, a budding artist.

"I can't believe she ate the beans," 11th-grader Martin Hicks, 17, said, as he and dozens of other students watched Ackerman dine on a slice of pepperoni pizza, a hot dog, baked beans, an apple, a fruit cup and chocolate milk.

"I feel they don't take the time to prepare proper meals," Hicks, a sergeant in the school's Army JROTC, told a reporter. "We know what it's supposed to be, but when it's given to us it's not fully prepared. Some things might still be a little frozen."

Ackerman said that her food was just fine. The 88-year-old building, on the other hand, was not. During a tour led by Principal Ethelyn Payne Young, Ackerman saw exposed wires running along a first floor ceiling. She saw a girls' bathroom that lacked soap dispensers and mirrors, and which was in need of a paint job.

"That made me sad," Ackerman confided after exiting. "Imagine being a 16 or 17 year old without a mirror to primp just a little bit between class."

As they walked down a hallway, Principal Young pointed out rough spots. "These facilites are embarrassing - I'm embarrassed," she told Ackerman. "I'm embarrassed by the lack of attention that has been paid to this building. . . . We go to school in the dark."

Overbrook's condition was in stark contrast to Fox Chase Academics Plus School, where Ackerman spent her morning. That Northeast Philadelphia school, Ackerman said, was "immaculate." She was impressed by the library and by the questions she received from the fifth-grade class that had invited her, including whether she believes herself to be "sagacious" - that is, wise.

"What I saw in contrast was the difference in facilities," Ackerman said of the two schools. "What I saw that was similar was wonderful children who are enthusiastic, who love their school, who really enjoy being here.

"So, what I learned today is that there are great students across this city. They're not always treated equitably, but that's part of my job. . . . These are things that we can change and we can make those changes very quickly."

Among the Overbrook students whom Ackerman met was Ian Wiley, who yesterday learned that he had been accepted to Harvard University. "You'll love it," said Ackerman, who has a doctorate and master's degree from Harvard.

She also met Philip Beauchemin, 59, a social studies teacher for 38 years who coaches Overbrook's mock trial and baseball teams.

They chatted about his 12 mock-trial students - including Wiley - who have been accepted to Ivy League universities over the years, and of his six mock-trial teams that have won city championships and three state championships - including this year's.

When Ackerman had moved on to her next classroom, Beauchemin said he hoped that she would upgrade athletic fields and facilities at old schools like Overbrook, and improve the quality of teaching across the city.

"The school district, for all the time that I've been here, tries to take low-level teachers and then staff-develop them into something good. How has that worked out? I'd say, get high-quality teachers and then get out of the way."

Ackerman capped her day at a City Hall news conference at which Mayor Nutter and business and school leaders called on members of the public to lobby their elected state officials to support Gov. Rendell's proposed education-funding formula.

Rendell's proposal calls for investing at least $2.6 billion into schools statewide over the next six years to begin to address an estimated $4.6 billion annual shortfall in education funding. Philadelphia would receive $85 million in the first year of Rendell's plan.

"I've never seen an issue fraught with more politics than the funding of public education," Nutter said in explaining the need for the public campaign. "Let us take nothing for granted."

Members of the public, he said, are invited to attend a June 10 rally in Harrisburg to support the proposal and to e-mail lawmakers.

Nutter also presented Ackerman with a large mock check representing $2.22 million in aid from the Philadelphia Parking Authority. The funding is part of a deal the state struck with the city and school district several years ago. *