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New Phila. schools chief gets ‘eye-opening’ tour of facilities

Today was her first day running the eighth largest school system in the country, and Arlene Ackerman wanted to set the tone for her superintendency - touring classrooms, answering questions, eating cafeteria pizza off a styrofoam lunch tray alongside students.

Today was her first day running the eighth largest school system in the country, and Arlene Ackerman wanted to set the tone for her superintendency - touring classrooms, answering questions, eating cafeteria pizza off a styrofoam lunch tray alongside students.

So when teenager after teenager at Overbrook High told the new schools chief that their bathrooms were in bad shape, she wanted to see for herself.

Ackerman brushed aside the protests of two embarrassed students and marched in to a first-floor girls' room, all bare floors, peeling plaster, no soap, no mirror, no hot water.

"Looks like this is something we need to take care of right away," she said, peering into a stall. "We need to treat our young people with respect. I promise you we're going to work on this."

Overbrook principal Ethelyn Payne Young, who had earlier given Ackerman an earful about the 84-year-old building, nodded. "If you give them something nice, they'll take care of it."

Ackerman, 61, jumped in to her third stint running a big city school district today, traveling to West Philadelphia to visit Overbrook, one of the city's largest comprehensive high schools with 1,700 students, and to the Northeast to visit Fox Chase Elementary, one of its high achieving neighborhood schools.

"It was important to me to see the contrast as I begin to address equity issues," Ackerman said in an interview. "There are great students across this city, but we don't always treat them equally."

There was plenty that was eye-opening, Ackerman said - the talented young Overbrook singer she met who laments the school's lack of a music program; the wires hanging exposed in hallways; the bathrooms.

"There are some things we can do right now," she said.

Student Aziza Bey hopes that Ackerman's promise helps her team. Bey, 16, plays stopper for the school's soccer team, which has no practice field of its own.

The girls use tires for goals on a borrowed patch of playground dirt. They take long rides on school buses to play home games clear across the city.

"We need more activities for the students to get involved in. After school, nobody has anything to do," Bey told a reporter.

For her interest and her enthusiasm, Ackerman earned high marks on her first day, for which she chose a black-and-yellow pantsuit and impressively high heels.

She gave hugs and handshakes, said hello to lunch ladies and school police officers. She sang snippets of a Beyonce song walking down the hallway. She promised to keep in touch with Ian Wiley, an Overbrook senior who had just learned he was admitted to Harvard, where she earned her doctorate.

Sheldon Baker, 17, was impressed that Ackerman sat down in the crowded, noisy cafeteria and tried the same lunch students ate - she paid $7.50 to sample two meals, including pizza, peaches, an apple, a hot dog, and baked beans.

"Everybody here doesn't even like to eat it that much," Baker said of the cafeteria food.

(Her meal was "just great," Ackerman declared. "Really.")

And at Fox Chase, the students were duly impressed by the new executive, whom they presented with flowers and a proclamation.

"I thought I was going to faint," said Davik Miller, 11. "This is my first time seeing someone important."

Ackerman laughed.

"Don't forget, you're more important than me," she said.

The children were wowed when they discovered Ackerman was rapper Nelly's middle school principal in St. Louis. But mostly, they had lots to ask her.

"Do you see yourself as sagacious?" one girl asked, testing out a vocabulary word.

"I can't even spell that word," Ackerman joked. "Yes, I would hope that I'm an intelligent person."

Did you always want to be a superintendent, they asked?

"I actually thought I was going to be a teacher all my life," said the former fifth grade teacher, who also confessed to an early desire to become a lawyer. "Can't you tell I was a teacher? I have a teacher voice."

Ackerman, who will receive a salary of $325,000 annually, has already set an ambitious agenda for her first 100 days - flattening the district's bureaucracy, putting more focus on schools, promoting fiscal accountability and holding all adults accountable. She will also stress equity, she said.

As superintendent in San Francisco and Washington and assistant superintendent in Seattle, Ackerman introduced weighted funding formulas. Schools received more money if their students fit criteria such as poverty, special education, or limited English.

She has also vowed to make the district more customer friendly, promising visitors access to her central office from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Ackerman finished her public schedule with a press conference at City Hall with Mayor Nutter, touting Gov. Rendell's new education funding formula, which would give the school district $85 million in new state money. Rendell has asked the legislature to commit to a six-year funding plan.

The large City Hall crowd gave Ackerman a standing ovation. She looked around and said she had a feeling she'd be back.

"I hope," she said, "this whole room is standing when I retire."