More Philadelphia School District teachers, principals, and central office staff will lose their jobs or have disciplinary action taken against them this year, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman vowed yesterday - no matter how unpopular it makes her.
In a wide-ranging interview about her first year in the district, Ackerman also gave herself high marks for her efforts thus far, said she'd like to stay for five years, and called Philadelphia a "broken community" wounded by years of promises unkept by previous superintendents.
"There's a sense of urgency that's driving me like nothing else has driven me before," said Ackerman, 62. "This is my last stand for kids."
Last year, she said, out of a teaching force of 10,700, just 13 teachers were given "unsatisfactory" ratings, and only five removed from their jobs. None of the nearly 300 principals was removed for failing to meet academic standards.
She knows not all teachers and principals are up to snuff, Ackerman said, and their ratings must reflect that. Principals and regional superintendents have been given directives and training on how to toughen their standards for observations, she said.
"We can't have this kind of performance. There will be changes in the principal staff, and there will be many more teachers who will be rated unsatisfactory this year," said Ackerman, adding that some central-office staffers will also be removed by next year.
That will not go over well, she knows.
"I expect some unrest from some of my union colleagues, but it's OK, because we're setting a standard and a bar that's much higher than it's ever been," said Ackerman, who came to the district in June 2008. "Once you set that standard, then people know they can't produce below it, because there's a consequence."
Already, Ackerman has sent letters to about 30 principals warning them that unless they improve dramatically, they could be disciplined and removed from their assignments next year.
The union response
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that "it isn't helpful for principals or administrators to be on a witch hunt" and that struggling teachers need more support from the district.
Jordan said he could not say whether more teachers should have been rated unsatisfactory last year.
Michael Lerner, president of the principals union, said his organization has "never advocated that people who are unable to do the job be maintained in the position."
But Lerner said he saw no problem with zero disciplinary actions against principals last year. "I would attribute to that to the excellent selection process the school district has in choosing its administrators," he said.
There are good schools, teachers, and principals in the city, Ackerman said, but "there are lots of things that are broken, lots of schools that are lacking. I wouldn't send my children there."
People, including her own staff, Ackerman said, often accuse her of wanting to do too much too fast. But she said she needs to act now.
She said she plans on staying at least three years, and likely five or more, in Philadelphia before she retires, mostly to spend time with her granddaughters and grown sons in Albuquerque, N.M.
Overall, Ackerman said, she would give herself high grades for her first year, in which her administration wiped out a $35 million deficit, introduced a zero-tolerance policy for student misbehavior, shifted millions of dollars to the city's neediest schools, and launched Imagine 2014, her ambitious vision for the next five years.
"I give myself an A for effort," Ackerman said. She also said she deserved an A for community engagement and a "B or B-minus" for making adults in the system more accountable.
But she acknowledged that not all would give her the same marks. Ackerman is warm and personable in public, but has also earned a reputation as a tough customer.
"Are there people uncomfortable? Absolutely. At every level," she said. "I don't play games. What you see is what you get."
Though in general she has received a warm welcome in Philadelphia, she said, she has had "the best of times and the worst of times" as superintendent.
"I'm always struck by how hard it is to do the right things for kids. Some things just seem easy . . . but you have to jump through political hoops, you have to figure out what's this person's agenda, what's that group's agenda," she said.
There's been pushback, too, she said, from people reluctant to embrace her priorities. At a School Reform Commission meeting earlier this year, Ackerman told parents they had the right to walk into their child's school, unannounced, to check things out.
The next day, a mother standing outside her child's school called Ackerman to say she had been sent away, told she needed to make an appointment to see a teacher.
Ackerman got the principal on the phone - and was told it was school policy to require that parents prearrange meetings.
"I said, 'The district has no policy that says parents need to make an appointment. That school belongs to the parents. They can come,' " she said.
She said the real work - and the grade that matters - will come next year, when her staff must implement Imagine 2014, which includes smaller classes, more counselors, and more support for special-education students. The most controversial section of the plan calls for closing up to 30 failing schools and reconstituting them as district-run charters or schools run by outside managers.
In the first year alone, the district will allot $126 million of its $3.2 billion budget to Imagine 2014.
"What matters is whether we can get that done," Ackerman said.
She's found Philadelphia warm and friendly, but also "a broken community" that's had to deal with too many promises shattered by previous superintendents.
One example is the way new facilities have been built, she said. In the past, school advocates got new buildings or renovations based on meetings and promises from administrators. She wants a master facilities-planning process, with some kind of formula to determine which schools get built, and when.
"People don't go to the superintendent, have a meeting, and get promised a school when there are schools that have been waiting for years and decades to get needed renovations," Ackerman said.
Because of things like that, Ackerman said, "underneath [the city], there's a sadness. It's ever-present. It's clear to me that there's a wounded spirit here."
Her plan to fix that, she said, is to make only promises she can keep, and to work toward her top three goals: closing the achievement gap among student groups and lifting standards for all; holding adults accountable; and seeing that the district "pie" is divided fairly.
Ackerman wants the district to move toward a weighted student-funding formula, with more money given to schools that educate students in poverty or with special needs, for instance.
Despite the challenge, Ackerman loves the city - "It's like living in history," she said. She's also keen on Philadelphia's murals, its vibrant oldies dance scene, and a nighttime tour of the city sights she took.
But there's one item not yet checked off her Philadelphia list.
"I haven't had a Philly cheesesteak," Ackerman said. "Maybe because for the last few months I've been on Jenny Craig."