Arlene Ackerman

The Ultimate Challenge in One Tough Town by JAY P. GOLDMAN

During the three years Arlene Ackerman worked as a central-office administrator for the Seattle Public Schools, her colleagues came to recognize she would one day get the nod for an urban superintendency, something she long had considered a personal calling.

Since May 1, Ackerman has filled what many would argue today holds that dubious distinction--the superintendency of the District of Columbia Public Schools. Only nine months earlier, she had left her family in Seattle to work in the nation’s capital as the school district’s chief academic officer under a retired military general, Julius Becton Jr. But when Becton resigned unexpectedly from the post more than two years before his contract was set to expire, the St. Louis native was elevated quickly to the top berth.

While conceding the job came to her sooner than expected, Ackerman has no doubts about her fitness for running the 146-school, 77,000-student system. She scored high marks generally for developing curriculum frameworks and an annual performance review system in Seattle, where she worked under another Army general, John Stanford. Her tough-talking, standards-based approach to student learning has begun to resonate around the District of Columbia.

Ackerman also has been a participant in the selective Harvard Urban Superintendents’ Program and expects to complete her doctorate next spring, a year later than originally thought.

Her year-long mentor as part of the Harvard program, Brian Benzel, says he gleaned valuable insights from his advisee about the schools in Edmonds, Wash., that he was running at the time. "Arlene was instrumental in helping us think through our learning about the changing demographics, the increasing poverty, the decaying infrastructure. She suggested it was inappropriate for us to say, ‘Look how poor the city schools are doing.’"

Like others who have known Ackerman over the years, Benzel says she harbors a deep passion for working with children in urban settings. "She’ll push the envelope around doing the right things for kids," he says.

Ackerman’s track record suggests she will not allow adult needs to come first. When she was named principal of a middle school in St. Louis County, Mo., in 1990, 15 of the school’s 55 teachers transferred or retired rather than face her higher job performance expectations. "I do have a reputation," she admits. "I come with clear accountability standards. I don’t accept excuses and that’s scary to people."

She has an ambitious agenda in her new role: enforcing proficiency standards in math and reading; ending social promotion and creating a battery of intervention measures; and connecting teacher and principal evaluations to student performance. Ackerman also is establishing better communication with parents and community members by extending the operating hours of the central administrative offices by 2½ hours each day and introducing school report cards with meaningful information.

But realizing these aims will be difficult, Ackerman acknowledges. She had to close a $27 million shortfall in the current fiscal year through major personnel layoffs and received $60 million less than she wanted for installing her reform plans in 1998-99. In addition, she must cope with a multilayered governance structure unlike any other faced by a superintendent in the nation. Her bosses include the federally appointed D.C. financial control board, the D.C. Emergency Board of Trustees (appointed to oversee the schools), the elected school board and Congress, whose leadership often speaks critically of the local school system.

Already Ackerman has revised her goal of "building an exemplary school district the year 2000"--a target she offered initially to capture public attention--by saying that dramatic improvements may take 4-5 years. Getting the entire community to act on her vision will be the key.

"There’s two questions I always ask myself when I struggle with a decision: Is this in the best interests of children? If they can answer that positively, we move forward," she says. "And second, what would I want for my two sons, Anthony and Matt, in this situation?"

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: