A Reputation for High StandardsBy Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 1997; Page B03 When Arlene Ackerman, appointed new chief academic officer for D.C. schools yesterday, took over in 1990 as principal of Brittany Woods Middle School near St. Louis, the rumors already had spread about her insistence on hard work and high standards -- and her willingness to confront teachers who displeased her.
Fifteen of the school's 55 teachers decided they did not wish to stay. Four quit, eight took jobs outside the district and three transferred to other schools, at least in part because Ackerman's commitment to excellence was so intense that, one teacher told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "you get the feeling sometimes of a military encampment."
Ackerman, who spent the first 12 years of her career teaching elementary school, never served in the Army herself, but she has become a favorite of two former generals running major school systems: Superintendent John Stanford in Seattle, where Ackerman is deputy superintendent, and D.C. schools Chief Executive Julius W. Becton Jr., who picked her as his prime educator.
Those who have worked with her describe a woman of great charm and intelligence, eager to involve parents, teachers and students in the changes she thinks are necessary to close the gap between the achievements of rich and poor students in public schools. But she is also said to have a hard edge when the usual obstacles to better schools -- inertia, political favor-trading and disbelief in the innate abilities of disadvantaged children -- get in her way.
"When she talks about schools, her focus is relentless," said Robert Peterkin, director of the Urban Superintendents Program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, where Ackerman has done work toward her doctorate. "She is not easily knocked off target by the latest crisis or the latest fad."
In a telephone interview from her office in Seattle, Ackerman, 50, said she took the D.C. job because of her commitment to urban education and her belief that the schools of the nation's capital should be a model for all schools, "just as our country is a model for the world." She said her sharp focus on student achievement "can create some level of discomfort for some people," and she had heard warnings that she might become mired in D.C. politics, but she sensed a new spirit in the Becton-led administration.
In Seattle, Ackerman has led the development and implementation of the city's new curriculum, a new school accountability process and standards for graduation. She administered a new formula for funding individual schools based on the changing mix of student needs and has taken credit for increases in standardized test scores.
In the University City district in St. Louis County, where she worked before moving to Seattle, it was her achievements as a middle school principal that put her on the list of potential future superintendents. She is African American and had such success raising achievement levels of black students at one middle school that the school board put her in charge of a second school, but kept her at the first one.
But some parents and teachers complained that she slighted higher achievers, many of them part of a minority of white students. She responded that she had cut advanced courses for seventh-graders, but not for eighth-graders, and was concerned about the education of all races.
She was promoted to assistant superintendent, then laid off, leading her to sue the board for $200,000 on the grounds that it was punishing her for emphasizing black achievement. Ellen Roe, a member of the Seattle school board, said Ackerman was equally anxious to improve that district, which is 41 percent white non-Hispanic, 25 percent Asian, 23 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic and 3 percent American Indian. But the problems in D.C. schools are so severe, Roe said, that "I worry about her."
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