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HGSE Remembers Arlene Ackerman

Arlene Ackerman (Photo: The Associated Press)HGSE is remembering esteemed educator and colleague Arlene Ackerman, Ed.M.’93, Ed.D.’01, who died on Saturday, February 2, from pancreatic cancer. With more than 30 years as an educator, the former superintendent of Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Philadelphia schools has been lauded for her long-standing commitment to children.

“Arlene Ackerman was an extraordinary education leader, evidenced by her many successes as superintendent of three of the nation's largest cities. She was a fearless supporter of the children she served — they were at the center of everything she did,” said Dean Kathleen McCartney. “The Council of Great City Schools named her Superintendent of the Year in 2010 for her work in Philadelphia. Arlene was a frequent visitor to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she spoke powerfully about her practice. She was an inspiration to countless educators, including her fellow HGSE alumni, and she will be dearly missed by all of us whose lives she touched.”

Ackerman received her doctorate in Administration, Planning and Social Policy from HGSE’s Urban Superintendents Program (USP) in 2001.

Professor Robert Peterkin can still recall Ackerman’s application to become a member of the third cohort of USP. “One of the reasons her application looked so strong to me was in her own description, she spoke about being let go from a school district because of standing up for equitable treatment for kids,” he said. “It stood out to me that she was full of integrity and relentless in pursuit of what she thought kids deserved.”

Ackerman’s first superintendent position was in the Washington D.C. Public Schools from 1998 to 2000, where she made key changes to the system that included reworking the schools budget, revamping instruction resulting in boosted test scores, and reorganizing staff structure.

“‘Victory is in the classroom’ was one of her favorite quotes,” said Senior Lecturer Deborah Jewell-Sherman, who met Ackerman while both were students in USP. “She saw the work educators need to do as focusing on the classroom and having teachers who are knowledgeable, and committed to students’ success. And if they weren’t part of the solution then they needed to get out of the way.”

Growing up in St. Louis, Ackerman was born into a family that fought for a better America and education. Her minister father was active in the Civil Rights movement and her mother was a teacher in segregated schools. “That colored what she experienced,” Jewell-Sherman said. “The discrimination and the inequities fueled her passion for social justice. She saw public education, especially in urban districts, as the arena in which she would fight for a better America.”

Later as the first African American and female superintendent of San Francisco Public Schools, she introduced a program to target additional resources and create a new equitable funding formula for schools. During her tenure, all students — including those in special education and gifted programs and English Language Learners — showed gains on state mandated tests and consistently scored above the state and national averages in reading and in math. She developed consistent dialogue with teachers through the establishment of monthly roundtables and listening sessions at schools. She also created the Office of Parent Affairs, which is dedicated to supporting the authentic engagement of parents at every school, as well as the central office.

Following her time in San Francisco, Ackerman joined the staff at Columbia University's Teachers College until she was called back to service as superintendent of Philadelphia Public Schools from 2008 to 2011.

Peterkin, who worked on each of Ackerman’s transition teams, acknowledged challenges of the job but that she had always been committed, staying within each post much longer than the typical superintendency stint of two years.

“She was an innovator,” Peterkin said, pointing to Ackerman’s support of the “Weighted Student Formula,” which restructured the way money was distributed within schools based on the need of a child as opposed to a predetermined formula. “She fought to give additional resources for students who needed it, recognizing that teachers and administrators have to be extra accountable for their success. ... She was shaking up the status quo, and when you do that someone is going to get upset ... but she wasn’t afraid to lose her job to get the job done that she thought needed to be done. That always impressed me with Arlene.”

Prior to becoming a superintendent, she worked in many different facets of education including as classroom teacher at both the elementary and middle school levels, principal at the middle school level, director of the Upward Bound Program for first-generation college-bound students, and director of the Basic Skills Academy for at-risk high school youth.

Ackerman credited her time at HGSE, particularly in USP, as playing a vital role in her career. “My USP experience provided me with an extraordinary blend of theory, research and practice,” she told HGSE. “I owe my success as an urban superintendent to the academic and professional development I received in the Harvard Urban Superintendents Program."

After completing the program, she continued to be active in USP taking on a role as a mentor.

“She was a great woman and a great leader,” said Kenneth Salim, Ed.D.’11, who interned under Ackerman in San Francisco as part of USP. “She was well-known for her commitment to children, always making sure children came first in any decision made in the central office. One of the biggest lessons I learned from her is the importance of sharing core beliefs and partnering outside.”

Now, in his role as superintendent of Weymouth (Mass.) Public Schools, Salim said he holds monthly roundtables for teachers and parents to speak about the work, issues, and successes, which was something he learned from Ackerman. “Her leadership was really influential in my development,” he said. “I bring the lessons Arlene taught me to my work, especially in thinking about the importance of engaging parents as partners.”

For many, her work will live on in the students, colleagues, and admirers who revered her like Jewell-Sherman.

“She was a sister in the struggle – a term not just confined to African-American or Latino women. It’s a term of endearment for anyone who is passionate about that work,” Jewell-Sherman said. “She paid a great price to make a difference. She sacrificed personal time. I fear she may not have taken good care of her health, but she was a warrior. And, she wanted to leave things better than when she found them. She accomplished that mission.”

For more on the life and career of Arlene Ackerman, visit the New York Times.