An hour after her biweekly round table with teachers was supposed to be over, D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and a dozen stragglers lingered, in no rush to end their discussion.
One teacher raised an often-asked question: Was the job of superintendent, which Ackerman has held for 13 months, so difficult that it will drive her away before her newly planted programs and initiatives can take root?
Ackerman laughed. "I'm not planning to go anywhere," she said. "I've come too far and left too many people behind."
After three hours of talking education reform, one of her favorite subjects, Ackerman answered without hesitation. But ask her about her plans on a different day -- when the special education division is slammed by a federal judge, or she learns that dozens of contracts are bottled up in the procurement system, or there's new speculation that the D.C. Board of Education will try to oust her when it regains power -- and her response is more measured.
The elected school board "did not choose me," Ackerman, who was hired by the D.C. financial control board, said in a recent interview. "Whether or not they will ever be able to accept me is a question mark, and whether or not we can share the same agenda is a question mark."
As Ackerman's first full school year as superintendent draws to a close, she is buoyed by support from Mayor Anthony A. Williams, the control board and many parents she meets at community gatherings and on the street. But she is also buffeted by persistent criticism from several D.C. Council and school board members and from some longtime parent advocates, who say she is autocratic, aloof and unable to fix chronic school system problems.
The different reactions reflect both a deep division about how to tackle these problems and two distinct truths about Ackerman's tenure: Although she has dramatically changed how students are taught and schools are funded, she is still struggling to improve special education services, building repairs and personnel and data collection operations.
"In all those areas, the problems are still very serious," said Bonnie Cain, a parent who this year joined the staff of the council's education committee. "And I don't believe any effort has been made in some of them."
Ackerman's job will get more complicated over the next year, as she and the school board -- stripped of its power by the control board in 1996 -- are forced into a partnership. The school panel will reclaim its oversight role in June 2000, and school watchdogs say any improvements made this year will survive only if the superintendent and the elected board, long at odds with each other, work together.
"She and [the elected board] have to work out the reform agenda," said control board Vice Chairman Constance B. Newman, who oversees school issues and believes Ackerman is "committed to this city and to this school system. She plans to make it work."
Some parents say Ackerman has made progress. Since being hired as deputy superintendent nearly two years ago, she has linked student promotions to scores on the demanding Stanford 9 Achievement Test, launched ambitious summer and Saturday school programs for tens of thousands of youngsters and put the tools in place to remove principals and teachers whose students do not improve.
"I see it in my own son," said Janet Myers, the PTA vice president at Takoma Educational Center in Northwest, whose 13-year-old's scores on the Stanford test have risen significantly. "Our teachers are teaching our children for a change."
Ackerman has expanded the time devoted to teacher training and negotiated a far-reaching, though still pending, teacher contract that ties pay to performance. And she has changed the way money is allocated to schools, increasing funding for poor or language-minority students and asking school principals to work with teachers and parents in deciding how to spend the funds.
For every accomplishment Ackerman can cite, however, critics can name several problems that fester. Nearly a year after she fired almost everyone in the troubled personnel department and eight months after hiring a new director, some teachers are still waiting for long-owed back pay and a resolution to other salary disputes.
Ackerman waited until last month to launch a complete overhaul of the special education division, which serves 1 in 10 D.C. schoolchildren but eats up 1 in 3 budget dollars while violating federal and court-ordered program requirements.
She took a year to hire a chief lawyer for the school system and has yet to name a facilities director. And her efforts to collect better data on student enrollment, dropout rates and truancy have been stalled by a months-long delay in buying a computer system to track such information.
That purchase is one of more than 500 vital school system requests languishing in the D.C. procurement office, Ackerman says. The city's procurement chief has blamed school officials for the delay, saying they aren't adhering to proper contracting procedures.
"It's obviously not working. I don't know whose fault it is," said parent activist Susan Gushue. "I think that the control board [is] really asleep at the wheel."
Gushue is among many, including some council members, who say they feel alienated from the superintendent and find her staff unresponsive.
"If you try to have a conversation [about where the school system should be going], you hear, `There was a crisis. I was given a mandate to reform, and I'm reforming,' " Gushue said.
Ackerman and her aides say they are promoting parental inclusion, both through the new budget process and by holding leadership workshops to train parents to become involved in their children's schools. But their efforts are largely concentrated at the individual school level. When it comes to policy, a broad range of parental opinion is rarely sought.
Ackerman's "challenge in the coming year is to really improve her relationships with parents and the community, because they still feel left out," said Board of Education President Wilma R. Harvey (Ward 1), a frequent critic, who has accused Ackerman of failing to take the views of the board and the public seriously.
Such criticism frustrates Ackerman, who likens the struggling school system to a trauma patient in the recovery room after emergency surgery. There often isn't enough time, she said, to solicit opinions from everybody, including the school board.
"People die in the recovery room. Or they get well," Ackerman said. "We're in a very fragile state. . . . We still have a long, long way to go before we're completely healthy."
Ackerman has enjoyed remarkably little interference from the control board, the council or Congress. But, like it or not, she will have several new members on her operating team next fall. After 2 1/2 years of near powerlessness, the elected board will take the lead in fashioning the fiscal 2001 school budget and in writing a 10-year master plan for building repairs.
The superintendent isn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of working with the historically hands-on panel. She butted heads with some members earlier this year over her new school funding approach. At a retreat in January, she thought she had secured the board's support. But when word of the proposal leaked to the community, several members criticized various aspects of the plan, forcing her to modify it.
School board members and Ackerman are now working with facilitators to plot budget strategies and iron out differences. And under pressure from the control board, the school panel in recent weeks has pledged a new era of cooperation.
"I'm seeing good signs," said Robert G. Childs, an at-large board member. "There's a lot of distrust . . . [but] a lot of efforts are being made around trying to reach out."
Ackerman remains wary. She says she will keep introducing new initiatives -- and hopes the public will support those changes and thus persuade the elected board to work with her.
"I've said to people it's going to take five years. Why are people expecting me to fix it within a year?" Ackerman said. "Give me five years, and I promise you, you'll have a good system."
Many parents blanch at such requests, remembering how Ackerman's predecessor, Julius W. Becton Jr., made similar promises, only to lose credibility amid a surprise budget deficit and continued personnel snafus.
But others, such as Francesca Dixon, are willing to give her a chance.
"I would be very reluctant to judge Arlene Ackerman too harshly, for fear that we are just chewing up superintendents one after another," said Dixon, president-elect of the PTA at Walker-Jones Elementary School in Northwest Washington. "Ackerman seems like a fixer to me, if she just has the time."
CAPTION: Arlene Ackerman says she plans to keep introducing new initiatives.
CAPTION: "Give me five years, and I promise you, you'll have a good system," said D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.