PHILADELPHIA (AP)- Former Philadelphia schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who left abruptly a year and a half ago after clashing with local officials, died Saturday of pancreatic cancer, according to her son. She was 66.
Anthony Antognoli said his mother died in Albuquerque, N.M., where she lived. He said she hadn’t been ill long and “it was too short a battle.”
Superintendent William Hite Jr. said he expressed “deepest sympathies” to Ackerman’s loved ones on behalf of the Philadelphia school district.
“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,” Hite said in a statement.
Mayor Michael Nutter praised her as “a truly committed educator who demonstrated a profound passion for students and in particular the most disadvantaged students in our city.
“Through her leadership, Philadelphia took on the difficult, long-neglected task of turning around low-performing schools,” he said in a statement. “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.”
Ackerman came to the Philadelphia, the nation’s eighth-largest school district, in 2008 after previously serving as superintendent in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. She was credited with continuing the district’s rise in test scores as well as lowering class sizes in primary grades, creating a parent-outreach program and launching an initiative to transform chronically failing schools through staff overhauls or conversion to charter schools.
Critics, however, called her polarizing and autocratic, and the district’s huge budget gap due in part to massive reductions in state and federal aid led to thousands of pink slips and program cuts. She drew criticism over a no-bid contract for school surveillance cameras, the handling of racial violence at a high school and a dispute with a teacher over a district school turned into a charter. She also clashed with the teachers union after trying to protect certain staff from layoffs.
Ackerman, who grew up in St. Louis, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that her experience attending segregated schools affected her deeply.
“While those were very difficult times, I think they helped shape who I am,” Ackerman told the newspaper in 2008. “They helped me understand the importance of a quality education, why resources are important. All of those experiences have made me a better leader, a better educator.”
After leaving Philadelphia, she moved to Albuquerque to be near family and started an educational consulting business. She served on the board of the Southwest Women’s Law Center and gave advice on how to get more girls involved in athletics, said executive director Pamelya Herndon.
“New Mexico benefited from her insight on how to get girls out of poverty through sports,” Herndon said.
Ackerman was survived by sons Anthony and Matthew Antognoli, as well as siblings and granddaughters. Funeral arrangements are not yet complete.
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras in Albuquerque, N.M., contributed to this report.