Arlene Ackerman, Former Schools Chief, Succumbs to Pancreatic Cancer

Dorothy Rowley | 2/2/2013, 7:45 p.m.

Arlene Ackerman, a former superintendent of the District of Columbia, Philadelphia and San Francisco school systems, died on Saturday morning of pancreatic cancer. She was 66.

Her son, Anthony Antognoli, said in reports that his mother passed away at about 5 a.m. Feb. 2 at her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He said she hadn't been ill for a while, and that "it was too short a battle."

"Arlene Ackerman was a staple and a leader in urban education reform," said District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. "Her work helped thousands of children across the country, from D.C. to Philadelphia to Seattle and San Francisco. The education community lost one of its dear friends today."

Current Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite added that Ackerman devoted her life to children and public education.

"In doing so, encouraged countless other individuals to commit their lives to teaching, learning and leading," Hite said. "For that, we are grateful. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and colleagues."

But critics of Ackerman, who described her as polarizing, autocratic and overpaid, had also referred to her as "Queen Arlene."

Ackerman, a 43-year veteran of the public education system, who was ousted in August 2011 as Philadelphia' superintendent, stirred further controversy after it was revealed she was paid $905,000 in school district money to make her departure.

Nevertheless, during her tenure with the nation's 8th largest school district, Ackerman was credited with an ongoing increase in Philadelphia's test scores, decreasing class sizes in primary grades, creating a parent-outreach program and launching an initiative to change chronically failing schools through staff overhauls or conversion to charter schools.

Ackerman resigned from the D.C. school system in 2000 after being at the helm for two years.

She was instrumental in the city's beginning efforts at school reform, and is credited with helping to launch several initiatives that improved District schools. They reportedly included the adoption of social studies textbook for grades K-12 and science secondary subjects, collaboration with the Washington Teachers' Union on multiple education initiatives and reduced central administration costs from 15 percent to less than 6 percent of schools' budget.

"I believe that we are on the right track," Ackerman had commented at the the time.