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A surgeon with blinders on

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman says she has no time for Ďpoliticsí

(Published May 3, 1999)


Staff Writer

Emergency room doctors donít have time for consensus.

And D.C. school Superintendent Arlene Ackerman had a heck of a surgery job ahead of her when she took the job a year ago, she said. Her patient was bleeding to death.

"My first job was to stabilize the vital organs," she said in a recent interview. "I didnít have the luxury of stepping back and doing consensus building."

Local parents groups and city leaders have criticized Ackerman for not including them in her plans to remake the Districtís public schools. But Ackerman counters that staying focused on children, rather than adult distractions, was the only way to get things done.

"I tend to put blinders on and say, ĎThis has got to be done,í " she said. "I donít have the time or the inclination to deal with adult problems."

Some have criticized her for not being more visible, often sending staff members in her place to community events to which she had previously committed. Councilman Kevin Chavous, D-Ward 7, chair of the councilís education committee, said he was disturbed that Ackerman failed to show up at a recent committee hearing that he rescheduled twice for her benefit. Avoiding public debate has earned her a reputation among some residents for being distant and autocratic. Some say city residents have little feeling for who the superintendent from Seattle really is.

Ackerman said she tries to show up personally at as many events as possible, adding that it keeps her busy nearly every night of the week.

"I donít know how much more one person can do," she said. But she admits she doesnít "get a whole lot out of formal meetings" and would rather do her work behind the scenes ó like the closed-door meetings she holds twice a month with a randomly invited group of teachers. They tell her whatís really going on at their schools, network with each other, and usually donít want to adjourn the meeting when itís time to go.

"It seems like itís the first time they ever had any meaningful interaction with their superintendent," Ackerman said.

A similar program especially for new teachers has had one session so far, she said. And starting next year, new teachers will be paired with retired teachers who will act as mentors, she said.

These are the sorts of things Ackerman said sheíd really rather do than testify and debate. It is only by avoiding "politics" that she accomplished small but significant successes, she said.

For the first time in 25 years, D.C. schools have a uniform set of standards to govern what is taught in each major subject area and what students are expected to know at various grade levels, she said. New teacher and principal evaluation processes have been developed. Last year the schools opened on time and closed a $62 million deficit. More than 25,000 children completed summer school. Central administration has been cut and reorganized.

But she admits the schools have a long way to go.

School records show thousands of students have not even a partial grasp of grade-level material. Officials report many crucial personnel re-cords are missing. Buildings are crumbling. Students say school bathrooms are unusable.

Ackermanís general response to many of the school districtís problems has been to decentralize the system. Responsibility for curriculum development, budgeting, staffing, special education and custodial services has been shifted to individual schools.

"We have set certain standards," she said. "How each school gets there should be a local site decision."

For example, the Individual Educational Plan (IEP) for special education students will be formulated at the school level starting next year, she said. Currently the plans are created by centralized assessors who "donít know the child or the family," she said.

Critics say Ackerman is simply shifting problems away from central administrators onto principals, some of whom are not trained for such increased responsibilities and workloads and are being set up to fail.

In the end, Ackerman said, the schools will simply improve or die.

One of the hardest parts of her job, Ackerman said, has been breaking through a deeply entrenched culture of management through favors and intimidation rather than by merit and rules.

"Some of the things that have happened here, the way we do business, has not been healthy," she said.

"People told me many times, ĎYou donít understand. Youíre not from here. We have our own way of doing things. This is the Washington way.í

"Well, maybe the Washington way needs to be discarded. The rules apply to everybody. I donít care who you are. Itís a different way of doing business and if you canít do it, then donít stand in the way."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator