Former Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman died of cancer Saturday morning in Albuquerque, N.M.
Evelyn Sample-Oates, a district employee, says Ackerman, 66, died of pancreatic cancer around 5 a.m.
NBC10.com spoke with Ackerman's son, Anthony Antognoli, who says his mother was surrounded by her brother, sisters, children, and grandchildren when she died.
"We knew that she was sick for some time. We are hanging in there but we are happy she's at peace," Antognoli told NBC10.com.
Ackerman took over the nation's eighth-largest school district in 2008 and was credited with continuing a rise in test scores and shrinking class sizes in primary grades. But critics derided her $348,000 salary, called her “Queen Arlene”, and said her style was polarizing and autocratic.
She abruptly left in August 2011 after she was paid $905,000 in buyout money to leave the school district. Her buyout was initially going to be paid using public funds and anonymous private contributions. The donors later backed out after critics blasted the deal's lack of transparency.
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Philadelphia school superintendent William Hite, Jr. released a statement shortly after her death applauding Ackerman for her devotion to children and public education.
"On behalf of The School District of Philadelphia, I would like to extend my deepest sympathies to the family of Dr. Arlene Ackerman and all who loved her. 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. For that, we are grateful. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and colleagues."
Ackerman’s close friend E. Steven Collins, of Radio One, said Ackerman had a heart for children and the middle class.
“Ackerman really cared for middle class and poor children and created programs for them. She didn’t play the political game the way others wanted her to,” Collins told NBC10.com’s Sarah Glover. “I had known for a few weeks she had been in pretty bad shape. It’s really sad. She was so vibrant.”
Ackerman really wanted to make sweeping changes to the school district, according to Collins. He described her as “compassionate, creative, and fresh with her ideas and thinking.”