Class Struggle

New school superintendent Arlene Ackerman has fostered educational excellence -- and ignited political firestorms. Her first major initiative? A significant shift in funding, from wealthier to poorer schools, being planned behind closed doors.

It is just past 6 p.m. on the first Monday of winter break, and the generally bustling central office of the San Francisco Unified School District is quiet. The slow moment is a rare one for an office that has been running at warp speed ever since its new superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, arrived in August, after deciding to leave the Washington, D.C., superintendent's post. In the office of Jennifer Hartman, one of Ackerman's assistants, the superintendent and a few members of her inner circle are taking advantage of the opportunity to kid around.

Another Ackerman aide, Myong Leigh, who for a time ran the budget office for District of Columbia schools, is holding court, cracking jokes to a chuckling audience of Hartman, Ackerman, and Elois Brooks, another D.C. transplant. Because I'm there, Leigh is recalling the media frenzy that surrounded Ackerman's sudden decision to leave Washington after two productive, occasionally tumultuous years as superintendent of one of the nation's most troubled school districts.

"There were so many reporters that we thought about just sending her out to the balcony, like Evita," Leigh recalls, ""Don't cry for me, Washington.'" Hartman, a veteran SFUSD administrator who has been almost surgically attached to Ackerman since she arrived, finds this particularly amusing: "Oh, god, that's funny," she cackles toward her boss. "I haven't heard too many good ones like that around the office lately."

"That's 'cause they're all scared," says Ackerman, who began her D.C. tenure by cutting 600 staff positions at the District's central office, and who has already reduced the administrative payroll in San Francisco by $3 million. After an awkward silence, she decides to elaborate, her voice wavering a bit. "They just need to learn that I'm harder on myself than anyone else."

Brooks, the SFUSD's new chief of staff, has come out of retirement a second time for Ackerman's sake, and has been known to inspire significant amounts of fear all on her own. She looks askance at her boss, and makes a wry suggestion: "Try to remember that the next time you're screaming at me."

History shows that softening positions for political purposes is not something Arlene Ackerman does naturally or well. She says she has learned something of the political arts over time, but clearly her professional passions center on improving overall student performance, in large part by closing the performance gap between the richest and poorest children in public schools. Because overall performance has improved in the school districts she's led, Ackerman has earned wide acclaim in educational circles.

But for all her acclaim as an educator, Ackerman's résumé has blemishes. She was once fired from a Missouri principal's post in connection with a newspaper story in which she was quoted as saying she had a "black agenda." In the District of Columbia, her administration's occasionally abrupt manner and use of closed meetings left some parents and public officials feeling alienated, creating an adversarial climate that probably contributed to her relatively swift departure.

This reputation for combativeness -- what has seemed, at times, to be an affinity for the bunker mentality -- would probably come as news to those who have seen or worked with Ackerman in San Francisco. Here, during six months that have been something of a honeymoon period, she has concentrated on undoing the fiscal and organizational creations of former Superintendent Waldemar "Bill" Rojas. Because those creations caused widespread financial chaos, most of Ackerman's public appearances to date have been marked by lengthy, congratulatory exchanges predicated largely, it seems, on her not being named Rojas.

Eventually, however, she will shift from cleaning up the mess left by her predecessors to implementing her own agenda. That agenda includes, first and foremost, a plan for new funding arrangements that will likely attempt to revive poorer schools with money that has traditionally gone to wealthier ones.

The oldest daughter of a preacher and a teacher, Arlene Ackerman was one of seven black students at a large suburban high school outside of St. Louis in the early 1960s; it was an experience that hardened her, she says, the way heat tempers steel. "I was so isolated," she recalls. "And those were painful, painful times for me. But I think that's why I was so focused on doing well in school."

She did well enough, it turns out, to be the school's only black student to qualify for the National Honor Society. But when the time came for the ceremony, in which each honored girl was supposed to walk to the stage paired, arm in arm, with one of the boys, none of the other, white, honorees would walk with a black girl.

"I couldn't get any of the boys to walk with me," Ackerman recalls. "And, after a while, there was one young lady who said she would, but by then I wanted to walk alone."

The Honor Society slight was "just one of many," Ackerman recalls, and those slights left her with a worldview that has shaped her attitude as a school administrator and her philosophy as an educator. It is an attitude that can be encapsulated in two words: no excuses. Specifically, it is an attitude that does not allow school officials to use low socioeconomic status to explain away poor school performance. "Failure has never been an option for me," she says. "And I think that's why, you know, instead of making excuses about family and test scores, I'm like, "Whatever!' Would you stay with a doctor who complained about how you hadn't done this, or how you should have come to him earlier? No. So why would you want to educate children with that attitude?"

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