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July 31, 2014, 3:25 am

Former Philly schools chief Ackerman dies at 66

Former Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman died early Saturday morning of pancreatic cancer. She was 66.

According to her son, Anthony Antognoli, Ackerman died around 5 a.m. in Albuquerque, N.M., where she lived. Her son also said that his mother hadn’t been ill for very long.

Ackerman left Philadelphia abruptly over a year and a half ago after continuously wrestling with officials and community leaders, some of whom were highly critical of her leadership of the School District. Others, however, saw her as a beacon of hope for a public school system that is facing financial hardships and difficult decisions.

“Arlene Ackerman was a truly committed educator who demonstrated a profound passion for students and in particular the most disadvantaged students in our city,” said Mayor Michael Nutter on Saturday in a press release. “Through her leadership, Philadelphia took on the difficult, long-neglected task of turning around low-performing schools. Today, thousands of Philadelphia students are getting a better education thanks to her vision and advocacy. Her educational legacy will live on for many years through the initiatives that she championed. Our prayers are with her family and friends.”

Ackerman took over the leadership of the Philadelphia School District in 2008, the nation’s eighth largest public school system. A career educator, she was credited for raising test scores, turning around low-performing schools and for shrinking class sizes. Also under Ackerman, the district experienced a 29 percent decline in violent crime, and a 7 percent rise in sixth-year graduation rates.

Her critics often referred to her as “Queen Arlene” a title that spotlighted a leadership style that some said was dictatorial and autocratic. They questioned her over $300,000-a-year salary and lined up to take shots at her again in August 2011 when Ackerman abruptly resigned as School District superintendant and accepted a negotiated contract buyout of $905,000. She came under public scrutiny for what some considered a slow response to incidents of racial violence at Southern High School in 2009. In that same year the spotlight focused on her again when she interceded in the awarding of a $7.5 million contract for the installation of security cameras in city schools. According to Ackerman minority contractors had been overlooked in the selections process. The contract was granted to IBS Communications, a minority-owned firm.

Despite the outcry from her detractors, a school district investigation found no evidence of wrong doing by Ackerman.

“On behalf of the School District of Philadelphia, I would like to extend my deepest sympathies to the family of Dr. Arlene Ackerman and all who loved her,” said Superintendant William Hite in a statement released shortly after learning of Ackerman’s passing. “Dr. Ackerman devoted her life to children and public education, and in doing so, encouraged countless other individuals to commit their lives to teaching, learning and leading. For that, we are grateful. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and colleagues.”