I BELIEVED, from the moment she set foot in Philadelphia in 2008, in School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's ability to improve the city's dysfunctional school system.
Early on, she appeared to be poised, polished and highly educated, with a professional track record that far surpassed her predecessor, Paul Vallas. I viewed Vallas as just another politically connected carpetbagger, who dropped in on Philadelphia just long enough to boost his credentials and his bank account, but made few sustainable improvements in Philly's ailing schools.
But ever since the racial violence that erupted at South Philadelphia High School last year, and Ackerman's refusal to take immediate responsibility for the negative climate that grew there, I've been watching her with a more critical eye; she seems to be really good at passing the buck.
By this week's end, she will reportedly announce another shake-up at district headquarters, where she's already run through three Chiefs of Staff and two Chief Academic Officers. This doesn't exactly sound like a woman who looks before she leaps.
But she does seem willing to spend quite a few of our tax dollars on herself. Take, for example the recently announced $65,000 bonus that the SRC refuses to justify and which tops her $350,000 base salary and has raised the ire of parents like me. Especially considering that last week, the Inquirer cited stats from the National Assessment of Education Progress showing that 61 percent of Philadelphia's fourth graders fall below the national average in reading skills.
For sure, this city is a tough nut to crack. Vallas turned out to be more of a talented snake-oil salesman who privatized many of our public schools with expensive Education Management Organizations (EMOs) instead of reforming the public system. After a national search to replace him, Ackerman was recruited to turn around student achievement in Philadelphia the way she did when she headed the public schools in San Francisco and Washington DC. But, in contrast to Vallas, who knew how to schmooze the public and stroke city and state legislators as well as the media, Dr. Ackerman appears to be lacking in good people skills.
Although she makes plenty of headlines, many of them are negative. With all due respect, it must be a nearly Herculean fete to try and untangle the myriad of challenges found here in Philadelphia's public-school system. Problems like severe under-funding from the state, dilapidated buildings and a city that's rife with violence have plagued our schools for decades.
For another, mainstreaming children with social and emotional disorders into regular class rooms creates tremendous problems for students and their teachers. At my youngest child's elementary school, once one of the best in the city, there's been an uptick in school fights, which usually start on the buses that bring special-needs children from across town. I personally believe that those students are disruptive to regular classrooms and should be segregated because they distract the teachers from the mainstream population of students who are capable of achieving on grade level.
I hope Ackerman will step up her game with reforms that benefit the children, our most valuable asset. School reform means more than just shaking up management. It must also include reform in class rooms.
Now that Dr. Ackerman has unveiled her Imagine 2014 strategic plan, I can't help but worry that she, too, will soon follow Vallas' lead and leave town with filled pockets, leaving behind another set of unfulfilled promises. Fatimah Ali is a regular contributor to the Daily News, and blogs about food at healthysoutherncomforts.com.