District School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman stood on the dais of a Charlottesville hotel soaking in admiring applause--and a disbelieving gasp or two--from Virginia educators as she described her war to save public schools in the nation's capital.

"When I got [to D.C.], it was the worst I had ever seen," she told the crowd in an upbeat speech late last year, one of several out-of-town appearances. "But we are making progress. Nothing is impossible. People no longer ask me, 'Why did I take this job?' Now they ask me how I do it."

This is Ackerman's preferred world--where she is viewed as the bold reformer pulling D.C. schools into the urban reform mainstream, where she's the focus of admiring magazine and newspaper profiles, where she's on recruiters' short lists.

But it's a world the superintendent visits only occasionally. She has spent most of the last 20 months in unending frustration in the District--where dust-ups over money, governance and policy cloud her days, where failures make headlines and successes often go unnoticed, where some parents and policymakers accuse her of taking two steps backward for every one forward.

Just 11 days after Charlottesville, for instance, a tired, flu-ravaged Ackerman blew up after learning in a staff meeting that a glitch in a new computer system was still botching paychecks for teachers and other school employees. She walked into her spacious office at 825 North Capitol St. and told speechless aides: "I'm close to my breaking point. I really am. One more thing . . ."

Ackerman, observed over several months before public groups and in staff meetings behind closed doors, is an educator who knows the substance of school reform and is sure of the rightness of her crusade. But as she nears the average two-year tenure of urban superintendents, critics and supporters say she faces a serious gap in perception about her ability to fix the troubled District school system--and that her long-term success depends largely on how well she can close it.

To be sure, she has launched initiatives hailed by many in the education world as bold and innovative. They include establishing the region's first performance standards for students, teachers and principals; embarking on a systemic overhaul of special education; opening summer school to more than 20,000 students; offering incentives to attract new, qualified teachers; and establishing a budget formula that gives more autonomy to individual schools.

"I think those are major reforms that took a lot of guts and a lot of single-minded focus and vision," said Michael Casserly, director of the Washington-based Council of Great City Schools. "She pursued them until she got them. And I think the system will be much better for what she has done."

A city that was once "as close to sitting on bottom as we have ever seen one of our systems," is now passing other systems in reform, he said. Also, standardized test scores have improved in the city two years in a row.

But Ackerman's detractors say continual problems with the basics, such as personnel records in disarray and the failure to bus special education students to school on time, undermine her other efforts. Even her fans fear her reforms will be sidetracked unless she can address these and other longtime failings in the schools. In doing so, she must convince her critics that she is meeting their concerns and become more comfortable operating in the rough-and-tumble world of D.C. schools. If not, the city will soon be looking for its fifth superintendent in less than 10 years.

Ackerman works hard at the job, and months of 12-hour or longer days, including some weekends, have taken a toll. She has been dogged by a series of respiratory ailments that friends attribute to overwork and stress. The strain is sometimes visible.

She doesn't understand why her critics don't appreciate the gains she has made. She believes her actions are often misunderstood and that she gets blamed for things beyond her control, such as budget shortfalls and procurement difficulties. She feels hampered by a messy governance structure that leaves her beholden to a variety of bosses.

The District's superintendent probably spends more hours with overseers than any other superintendent--with members of the D.C. financial control board, an appointed trustees panel, the elected Board of Education, the D.C. Council and educational or budget leaders in Congress. And now she has a new concern: To whom will she report after the council finishes debating the most sweeping changes to school governance in decades?

On one level, the vast difference in perception about Ackerman's performance is rooted in the fact that any real effort to fix a broken system is bound to shake up complacent constituencies and make people mad. Controversy begets division.

But Ackerman's ongoing struggle with many operational problems provides ammunition for her harshest critics. Attracting new teachers with bonuses means nothing if you can't pay them on time, or provide them with books and other supplies.

"Like most superintendents, management is not her strong point," said Mary Levy, a longtime D.C. education advocate who supports Ackerman and worries that she might quit. "The last three superintendents have all left under a cloud because of the system's management failures."

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who publicly praises her, has told associates he is concerned about her operational abilities. Last week, the mayor said that if he gets control of the school system, as he is proposing, he will keep her on the job but demand that she hire an operational chief.

Ackerman has been struggling with situations that epitomize the beleaguered school system. There was the brouhaha over a disabled boy who crawled to the toilet for more than a year because his wheelchair didn't fit through the restroom door. Then, for a time last fall, teachers were routinely leaving classrooms and going downtown to try to straighten out their paycheck problems.

Lately, city officials have been warning her that the school system could wind up with millions of dollars less than expected for the 1999-2000 school year, in part because of the growing popularity of new D.C. public charter schools--which are drawing public funds away from traditional schools.

In every instance, Ackerman says the problems were not her fault or that her own efforts to fix them were undermined by aides who failed her. Sometimes, she makes a change only to find that what worked in other cities doesn't work here.

For example: She hired and then dismissed two well-respected administrators to tackle the personnel department, which for years was so dysfunctional that officials did not know how many employees worked for the school system.

Last year, after two bus contractors repeatedly failed to get special education students to school on time, she helped arrange a contract with the nation's largest bus service, Laidlaw Transit. The firm worked well elsewhere, but problems here have been myriad, caused, special education advocates say, by both Laidlaw and D.C. school officials.

"What we have to ask is how things work elsewhere and they don't here," Ackerman said in an interview. "I can't figure it out. It's a city problem."

Douglas Carter, assistant principal of the Edison Public Charter Middle School who previously worked 21 years in D.C. schools, compared Ackerman's reform campaign to the charter school movement--calling it the difference between new construction and renovation.

"With all due respect to Mrs. Ackerman, she doesn't have the luxury of what we have," Carter said. "We started from ground zero. She can't. She's living in a house where she is renovating. But you somehow never seem to get a room done."

But members of the community say Ackerman has sustained some self-inflicted wounds. She dug in her heels at the wrong time, her critics say, such as when she stuck with an unpopular principal at a successful elementary school. This reinforced concerns, which followed her from posts in St. Louis and Seattle, that her policies help poor schools but end up harming the most successful ones. Her now-defunct plan to fingerprint classroom volunteers, including parents, also proved unpopular.

Ackerman, they complain, has not built enough of the personal relationships that sustain superintendents while their reforms are implemented. In that vein, some principals privately gripe that she has burdened them with more bureaucratic work and is trying to create a chasm between them and teachers, to whom she reaches out.

The superintendent concedes she is having trouble getting her detractors to understand her and failing to convey to her supporters that she needs more help. "I'm not getting my message out clearly," she told a group of teachers, who had been handpicked to meet with her and discuss education.

Ackerman's aides say she, like no other superintendent, gets pressure from local officials and members of Congress on the smallest of issues. Some wanted to know, for instance, why she was moving an Afrocentric program from one school to another. She feels targeted by officials who she thinks are playing politics. She spent last fall, for example, battling D.C. Council members who attacked her for not showing up for a slew of education hearings--but when she did attend, she was asked next to nothing.

She made her feelings clear during a recent Cabinet meeting, ending with a pep talk that sounded more like a call to arms:

"There are people who did very well in this system before we got here," she said, referring to some principals and central administrators who were ignoring policy directives and rules. "We are now going to get more resistance than we ever have from these people. Major obstacles have been put in front of us."

It's important, she told her staff, "that people don't see it as Arlene Ackerman's struggle. It has to be seen as everyone's struggle. We have to understand that we are in a struggle. It's easy to pick any of us off one by one. I feel we can win this . . . but it is a battle. We have to recognize that."

In the end, Ackerman thinks people expect too much too soon.

"We are in a system in a state of reform. It's not healthy. It's still in a fragile state," she said. "I feel like we are just beginning our work, and I wish people would just understand that."

CAPTION: D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman speaks at the groundbreaking of an elementary school in December, the city's first in 20 years.

CAPTION: "Nothing is impossible," Ackerman says of the effort to reform schools.