Former Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman died on Saturday at the age of 66. Sources said she suffered from a fast-moving form of pancreatic cancer and learned of her diagnosis less than a year ago. Ackerman passed away around 5 a.m. at her Albuquerque, New Mexico home.
"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," said current superintendent William Hite. "For that, we are grateful. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and colleagues."
Ackerman for three years headed the embattled School District, overseeing several high-profile scandals and a host of budgetary challenges before her abrupt departure in August of 2011.
Though under Ackerman's leadership, test scores rose and class sizes shrank, her relatively high salary – and the $905,000 severance pay she accepted to step down three years before her contract ended – agitated many stakeholders in the cash-strapped educational system.
Despite some public disagreements, officials and legislators mourned Ackerman's passing, remembering her as a controversial yet passionate figure who stubbornly advocated for underprivileged children.
“Dr. Ackerman was a no-nonsense CEO,” City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown said. “She ruffled feathers with one goal in mind: to improve the lives and education of children."
“She accomplished much and was recognized only a little. Upon the timing of her passing, she should be remembered for all of the work she did to move the needle forward for the life chances of Philadelphia's children."
A self-admitted educator rather than a politician, Ackerman also waged a series of often-heated battles with the city teachers' union over contract terms and funding decisions.
"Arlene Ackerman was a dynamic personality whose passion for children is to be admired," Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said. "While we may have disagreed about some educational issues, we always kept what's best for children as our focus."
"We will always remember her as a staunch advocate for Philadelphia's school children who believed that every student should have equal access to a quality education."
City Council will on Thursday present a resolution honoring Ackerman and thanking her for her service to Philadelphia.
“Her passion for children and for the core mission of public education was undeniable," said Council president Darrell Clarke, who will sponsor the resolution on behalf of all Council members. "On behalf of City Council, I extend my heartfelt sympathies and condolences to Dr. Ackerman’s family and loved ones."
"We want to thank Dr. Ackerman for her years of service to the School District of Philadelphia," said Councilwoman and Education Committee chair Jannie Blackwell.
Mayor Michael Nutter, whose relationship with the late schools chief was also at times tense, praised her tenacity.
"Arlene Ackerman was a truly committed educator who demonstrated a profound passion for students and in particular the most disadvantaged students in our city," he said. "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."