A YEAR AGO today, Arlene Ackerman logged her first official day as superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, bringing with her a résumé that includes superintendencies in San Francisco and Washington.
On that day, Ackerman told the Daily News that she was going to shake up the nation's eighth-largest school district by holding adults accountable, by scrutinizing contracts, by bringing equity to school funding and by making her administration family-friendly.
"When people say they want change, they don't often know what change looks like," she said last year. "Change is OK until it hits home, and it's going to hit home right away," pledged Ackerman, 62.
But just what difference a year has made under Ackerman's leadership could keep a debate team busy for another year.
In a district with more than 160,000 students and 10,700 teachers, some are singing the lifelong educator's praises. Others, not so much.
Fervent responses were given when the Daily News asked a cross-section of 12 city education watchers to grade the superintendent's performance in six areas: school safety, government relations, community relations, vision, finances and school improvement.
Overall, Ackerman received five C's and one B.
"The first year has been an infusion of new and vibrant blood," said the Rev. Paul Weeks, of Logan's Shalom Baptist Church. "She has used her experience to hit the ground running," said Weeks, whose daughter is graduating from Central High School.
"I don't want to get ahead of myself because there is still a lot they need to implement, but I'm glad she's here," he added.
"There is discontent among teachers, among administrators, and mainly because they feel shut out," he said. "My members, quite honestly, feel targeted."
Ackerman has introduced a report-card system for schools that principals will be judged on, but Lerner said she has not kept a promise to create grading systems for regional superintendents, central-office administrators or for herself.
"From my perspective, Dr. Ackerman has not been an ally of my members," he said.
Good mark for goals
In the Daily News survey, Ackerman got a B - her highest grade - for finances. Her second-highest grade-point average was for vision, due largely to her five-year Imagine 2014 reform plan, which will cost $126 million in its first year, starting this fall.
Many respondents said they were impressed and hopeful that the plan would reduce some class sizes and provide students with more resources and qualified educators.
The inclusion of more counselors in middle and high schools to help students prepare for college impressed Joseph Hall, president of the citywide Student Government.
"She is very ambitious, I like that. She has goals and has set them for the school district," said Hall, a Philadelphia Military Academy at Elverson senior who will attend Valley Forge Military Academy & College.
Split over safety issues
School safety, like the other categories, was a mixed bag for Ackerman.
The district's internal data indicate that serious-crime incidents are down by 13.6 percent this year, but some dispute that.
"I want to see the schools under control," said David Hardy, chief executive of Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter School. "I want to see less violence. I want to see students who are not unruly.
"It does not matter how many computers they buy or how many books they buy; if they don't control the kids, it won't work."
Still, some praised Ackerman's efforts to address safety concerns at their schools, and others said they've gotten no help at all.
After supporters of Germantown High School asked Ackerman for more security, she dispatched an evaluation team, followed by more security personnel, administrators and a parent ombudsman, said the Rev. LeRoi Simmons, of the Germantown Clergy Initiative.
"She was responsive to us at Germantown," Simmons said.
Jeff Rosenberg, a health and physical-education teacher at University City High School, said Ackerman's arrival has been little felt at the troubled school.
"Except for more testing, we're still looking [for change]," he said.
"Our [student] attendance is sliding and is as worse as it has ever been," he added, estimating that average daily attendance is about 65 percent.
The road ahead
A balanced $3.2 billion 2009-10 budget was adopted by the School Reform Commission last week, thanks in part to federal stimulus money. But Ackerman's pledge to root out waste in contracting has yet to be fulfilled, some said.
"That's the most troubling area," Simmons said. "I would plug the holes first before I pour more water into the bucket. It would do us better if the state felt we were more efficient and effective with the money that we have."
Helen Gym, a founding member of Parents United for Public Education, echoed that belief.
"Dr. Ackerman and her financial team needs to take a serious and hard look at the role of contracting, to find a more competitive process and a better review process to determine if they are effective," she said.
Some believe that Ackerman is still taking her biggest test: negotiating new contracts for the unions representing teachers, principals, school police, cafeteria workers and blue-collar employees.
She hopes to insert some type of merit-pay provision into the teachers' agreement and language that would place more experienced teachers in low-performing schools.
"There have been some positive things this first year," said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. "But a lot of work will have to be done this year in negotiations." *