'One Impatient Cookie' Hits D.C. Schools
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 1998; Page A1 After months of 16-hour days, countless tours and meetings, and a top-to-bottom inspection of D.C. public schools, Arlene Ackerman, the former deputy superintendent who had recently been named to the school system's top post, was confronted with a blunt question.
How many people in the system, she was asked at a meeting of about 20 of her top lieutenants, enjoyed her full trust?
No more than she could count on one hand, she answered. Which, of course, left out most of those in the stuffy conference room, not to mention more than 8,000 other employees across the city.
"Trust is something that is earned," an unapologetic Ackerman, 51, recalled later, her fingers outstretched as if counting the trusted few. "I told them that I couldn't get past five people, and that says something about me, [them] and this organization."
She spoke to her staff that spring day, as she nearly always does, in a voice as mellow as honey. But her words left some wondering whether their new boss knew how alienating she sounded and wondering how she expected to achieve reforms if she distanced herself from those charged with carrying out her programs.
For others, however, her directness and skepticism signaled that the city's schools finally are in the hands of someone who will break with the past and deliver on what many think is the last best chance to overhaul a system so beleaguered that most of its students perform worse the longer they stay in it.
The organization she inherited is degraded beyond her experience: The vast majority of students read well below grade level, and most of the 146 schools are in serious disrepair. Officials long have had trouble with the simplest tasks, such as counting students; the best estimate is 77,000. And they recently discovered a $62 million deficit, incurred in part because of hundreds of unauthorized employees.
But the mission is bigger, many believe. Fixing the public schools could be tantamount to saving the District, luring back working families to rebuild neighborhoods and boost the tax base.
Since getting the top job in May, after eight months as deputy to Julius W. Becton Jr., she has shaken up the change-resistant bureaucracy with unprecedented urgency. She has cleaned out the personnel office, revamped the alternative education department, fired more than 600 central office and other staff members, and removed principals she judged to be below par. She also organized the largest-ever summer school, is setting new academic standards for students, and has targeted low-performing schools for special assistance.
But it is still too early to tell how all of that will affect the system. And as hard as those things were to accomplish, changing the dynamics inside classrooms across the city is far more difficult.
Ackerman has already raised eyebrows about the way she goes about her business and some of the things she says. For example, she has declared that the District may not be able to afford small schools even though they are among the city's most successful. And some people wonder what strategic plan is underpinning the activity she has set in motion.
Some of her actions have had the same impact as that meeting with her staff: She has alienated some educators and parent activists. Now everybody, including her supporters, is watching to see whether she will rule by fiat or win enough allies to carry out the far-reaching reforms she envisions.
"I really hope this works for her," said Leona Mackler, Ackerman's eighth-grade teacher and the woman she considers her greatest career influence. "She's high-octane energy. In terms of goals and ambitions, she is pure gold. I love her. ... But she is one impatient cookie if you don't buy in" to her program.
"I have a strong hunch she is going to get into more damn trouble than she needs to."
Even as a child, Arlene Randle displayed her unusual combination of traits: a grace and reserve (she hated her singing voice and refused to join the choir) that coexist with a powerful self-confidence and intensity.
"She was shy, but once she got going, she was fine, kind of on the bossy side," said her mother, Isabel Randle. "She's got the fire in her."
The superintendent, born in St. Louis to middle-class parents who trusted in God, family and education, in that order, grew up in the midst of America's integration struggles.
Her family promoted social change through their nondenominational Protestant church, where her father, Bennie, was the preacher. For years, he was also the Army's only African American civilian electronic communications officer. Her mother eventually returned to school to get a teaching degree and a master's in education.
The Randles, married 53 years, instilled values in their five children of whom Arlene is the eldest by example. They didn't just tell them to excel they walked with them a mile to the library on Saturdays to read. The three Randle girls and two boys, all successful professionals, were taught to be self-reliant. Bennie Randle told his daughters not to depend on a man for everything in life.
If there was a family credo, it was that adversity is the best teacher. And Arlene was taught early.
As a middle school student, she and other blacks were bused for a period in seventh and eighth grades to a white school outside St. Louis. On the playground, a circle was drawn for the class to play in, and the black students were not allowed beyond its boundary, even to chase an errant ball.
That hurt, but worse was what happened at age 16, a moment that should have been her proudest. The first African American student inducted into her high school's honor society, she was supposed to walk into the auditorium, as customary, with a male society member. But the boy refused, fearing he would be laughed at if he walked with a black student.
Arlene walked alone.
"For a long time, I couldn't talk about it," she said recently, sitting among her collection of glass and wooden and ceramic apples in her 12th-floor superintendent's office. "It was such a painful experience. It's still painful. But I also look back with pride because my family helped me resolve it.
"You learn from things but some change you forever. ... Looking back, it helped make me very strong."
She became so strong that she scared people. In 1990, when she became a principal in a predominantly white suburb of St. Louis, 15 of the 55 teachers quit rather than work with her.
For two decades before, Ackerman had built a career in education, with a special strength in instruction. "Born teacher," Mackler wrote in Ackerman's eighth-grade yearbook.
Mackler always stressed the needs of minority children and broke with convention by being the first white teacher at the school to visit the homes of black students to meet their families.
"She was so phenomenal that when she would leave the room and come back, she'd say, 'Who misbehaved while I was gone?' And we'd stand up and confess," Ackerman laughed.
Her mentor remembers Ackerman as "one of the hardest-working kids you'd find. Driven, determined, ambitious. With this one, there was always a look in her eyes that said, 'What is the next step and how do I get there?' "
Ackerman earned a bachelor's degree at Harris Stowe Teachers College in 1968, then taught elementary and middle school while studying for her master's degree in education at Washington University. She earned another master's in education at Harvard in 1993, and hopes to complete her doctorate next year.
As a teacher, Ackerman tried to pattern herself after Mackler and apparently succeeded. A few years ago, while visiting an elementary school where she once taught fifth grade, she saw a classroom set up like her old rooms, its walls covered with colorful posters and motivational lessons.
The teacher, Ackerman learned, was Monica Daniels, a former student of her own.
"She really inspired me to become a teacher," said Daniels, still touched years later by how Ackerman went out of her way to help her build self-esteem.
"She never wore dresses, always pantsuits," Daniels recalled. "One day, I was crying and she asked me why. I said, 'The kids are making fun of my legs.' She said, 'I have skinny legs, too.' And the next day, wouldn't you know it, she wore a dress and said, 'See, I have skinny legs, too.' It really showed me that teaching is not just about books."
When Ackerman became a middle school principal in the St. Louis suburb of University City, she faced her biggest professional crisis.
Though successful in her push to raise achievement levels of low-performing blacks in the predominantly white school, her methods rankled many. When given an additional middle school to run, her reputation had preceded her, which was when 15 teachers at that school more than a fourth of the teaching staff quit.
"You get the feeling sometimes of a military encampment," one teacher complained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"I was sacrificed ... for doing what I was told needed to be done," said Ackerman, who sued. The case never went to trial: She settled for an undisclosed sum, but declined to take her job back.
"I really do believe I was fighting for the right thing," she said. "[But] politics get in the way."
It was in University City that Arlene Randle finally met David Ackerman.
The son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, he lived three miles from the Randles in St. Louis, but they never met. Like her, he was bused to school. Like Arlene's, his class was put in a circle on the playground. But David, who is white, was allowed to leave it to chase a ball.
They went to the same high school for two years, attended the same teachers college and taught in St. Louis schools at the same time but had never met.
Arlene, once married and long since divorced, was reconciled to being a single mother for her two sons, Anthony, now 25, and Matthew, 22. But in University City, Anthony was in David's fourth-grade math class. The son liked David Ackerman; the mother thought him arrogant. That changed when he was president of the teachers' union and she ran for a seat on the all-white school board. He campaigned for her, and though she lost, a bond was formed. She married Ackerman, a divorced father of three, in 1986.
Eventually, they ended up in Seattle, he as a principal, she as deputy superintendent under John Stanford, a charismatic retired general who depended on her to handle academics.
In Seattle, Ackerman set academic performance standards for students and schools and made it easier for parents to evaluate progress. She also helped develop a plan that gave more money to schools with a high percentage of students who needed more educational assistance. She has sent a financial team to Seattle to learn how to implement such a plan in the District.
"She was always gracious, always poised and respectful, and perceived as a strong advocate for children, especially for children historically under-served by our system, poor children, Afro-American children, Indian children and others," said Gary Tubbs, executive director of academic achievement in Seattle.
In Seattle, Ackerman displayed the leadership style that is becoming familiar in Washington. She prefers to act without publicity and keeps information closely held. For example, after targeting specific low-achieving schools in Seattle for special aid, she declined to say which schools they were.
But there were complaints again that Ackerman was shortchanging Seattle's better schools. And parents griped about her view that it is not cost-efficient to operate small schools, often favored by teachers and parents. She set minimum enrollment standards at each level, a position that has worried many parents in the District, although she has taken no direct action to rearrange school populations here.
Verleeta Wooten, president of the Seattle Education Association, the collective-bargaining unit for teachers, remembers the uneasiness at the beginning of Ackerman's tenure.
"She had a top-down decision-making process," Wooten said. "There are times you have to do that, but when you talk about staff buy-in, they have to have some involvement."
Eventually, Wooten said, Ackerman and the union developed a good working relationship "because she was so focused on the kids."
It is hard to gauge Ackerman's effectiveness in Seattle; Wooten and others said this past year would have been the time for her to really make her mark. But Ackerman longed to be in charge.
She got two offers the top job in Cambridge, Mass., and the deputy's job in the District, with near automatic advancement when Becton left. Friends and colleagues pushed Cambridge, but she chose the District, whose schoolchildren, Ackerman likes to say, "look like me."
Initially, her husband stayed in Seattle, where he had taken over that city's most troubled elementary school and is credited with easing its discipline and academic problems. He followed her to the District last month, though a short time later, Seattle Superintendent Stanford offered him the job of chief academic officer.
"If he couldn't have one Ackerman, he wanted the other one," Arlene Ackerman said, laughing. Instead, David Ackerman took a job as principal of a Fairfax County elementary school.
His wife is now wrangling with an enormous school system whose notorious problems and malicious politics have brought down three superintendents in the 1990s alone.
Her approach has been to start from the ground up. It was the only way, she believed, to survive the system's cumbersome chain of command where the superintendent reports not just to an elected school board, but also to an appointed trustees panel, the presidentially appointed control board and, finally, Congress.
Reaction to Ackerman's rock 'em, sock 'em approach has been mixed. She is praised by many education activists who say she has started in the right places and shown the courage to make unpopular changes in a system that has, so far, successfully resisted real reform.
"This is the first time that I've seen where there are concrete steps toward making necessary changes, instead of simply asserting that you are going to make them and that you have made them, without anything in between, which is an old D.C. public school trick," said Mary Levy, counsel to the education advocacy group Parents United, who has monitored the system for more than two decades.
"Arlene is having to do all the really nasty stuff, and it's not a happy way to start off, but it has to be done," Levy said. "And we have to expect she will make a few mistakes in doing that."
But some education activists worry that she is so interested in raising the system's floor that the ceiling those schools that succeed against long odds will be damaged. They complain that she has declared everything in the system dysfunctional.
"Because of circumstances, Mrs. Ackerman didn't have time to find out what worked," said Langdon Elementary School parent Susan Gushue, who criticized Ackerman for ignoring repeated pleas from Langdon parents to meet with her about problems at the school.
"She hasn't taken time to see what islands of excellence existed."
Though Ackerman prides herself on being accessible staying at community meetings for hours to answer questions some community and parent groups say they can't get her ear.
Ackerman largely discounts the criticism and sometimes bristles over it.
To those who say she ignores them, she says there aren't enough hours in the day to meet everybody. To those who say she will shortchange the good schools, she says nonsense. "When you raise the floor, you also raise the ceiling. That is what we will do."
Besides, she said, there are so many different public education constituencies and points of view in the District, she is bound to upset some people. "The minute I say the law applies to you, they say I'm top-down, in their way," she said.
But the job is taking a toll. The woman known for being indefatigable admits she is tired; a close colleague said Ackerman finds herself micromanaging because she doesn't trust the information she receives from subordinates. Last week, she replaced two top facilities officials because they gave her inaccurate information.
And the impatient administrator is finding that just about every change is taking longer to accomplish than she hoped.
Because of faulty data collection systems, she couldn't provide an accurate count of summer school enrollment until the six-week session was half over. She promised to decide by June 30 which principals would go, but evaluations were late. Complete scores from standardized tests taken in May still haven't been publicly released because there haven't been enough people to verify the numbers.
Once, she promised an exemplary system by 2000; now, she says it will take longer.
The nastiness of D.C. politics also is getting to her. "In this city," Ackerman quipped, "if you could walk on water you wouldn't get credit for it. They would say, 'Arlene Ackerman can't swim.' "
Ackerman said she is in the job for the long haul and hopes District residents will support her and that she eventually can have more confidence in the people who work for her. "I can't thrive in a system where I can't trust anybody," she said.
But even if she stands alone, she said, she will do what she feels must be done.
"I don't think people understand how broken the system is, and I mean really broken," she said. "And they expect overnight for it to be fixed. You have to give me some breathing room."
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