Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson on her first year: ‘I don’t make decisions based on fear’

One chilly December evening, Janice Jackson strode purposefully into her corner office at Chicago Public Schools’ downtown headquarters, sat down at a conference table, and reflected with Chalkbeat Chicago on her eventful first year running the nation’s third largest school district.

There are two words that Jackson repeated often this year — transparency and equity — and they came up often in this conversation, too. 

Related: Here’s what happened in Chicago public education this year

That translated to her releasing a comprehensive inventory of the city’s school choices — which prompted some difficult conversations about supply and demand across the district. She also created an office of equity to help confront test scores and graduation rates that show black and brown students lagging behind their white and Asian peers.

She’s wrestled with revelations of a student sex abuse crisis, a special education program that violated students rights, and unpopular decisions to shutter more schools in black communities still reeling from 2013’s mass closings.

But if one thing is clear from Year 1, Jackson’s resolve in tackling problems showed she doesn’t buckle under controversy, harsh words from critics, or fear of bad optics.

“Your natural personality says a lot about how you do stuff, and this is the honest-to-god truth — I am a fearless person,” she said. “I only fear God, that’s just how I roll. I believe that you have to make good decisions, you have to do what’s right, but I do not lead by fear, and I don’t make decisions based on fear.”

The realization of a dream — and a tough job

Jackson, 41, grew up in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the South Side, and has two children attending Chicago Public Schools. She got her start teaching at South Shore High School, and is the first schools chief to have taught at the district since 1995. Her ascent to schools chief followed her predecessor Forrest Claypool’s sudden departure under a cloud of scandal, but she wasn’t surprised last December when the mayor appointed her as interim CEO or in January when she shed the interim tag.

Jackson was plucked from the principal ranks, promoted to network chief and then named chief academic officer in 2015 with the understanding that she was being groomed to lead the district, her professional dream since early in her teaching career at Chicago schools.

“I knew being a principal would be extremely important, but if I really wanted to change some of the systemic things I think needed to be improved at CPS, that the role of CEO made the most sense,” she said.

But running a large, troubled urban school district — even one with climbing test scores and graduation rates — meant that she had to confront a pervasive, deep-seated public mistrust of district leadership in addition to ongoing challenges such as declining enrollment and disparities in academic achievement along race and class lines.

Jackson said she stepped into Year 1 with a vision of transforming Chicago Public Schools into a more equitable place for students.

Before those initiatives, Jackson tackled some low-profile but critical issues. In January, she made sure principals got their budgets earlier, to provide more certainty about funding. She directed more resources to schools with enrollment declines.

She also inherited some serious troubles. The Illinois State Board of Education imposed a monitor over the district’s special education program after finding the district had delayed and denied services to students with disabilities. Jackson added dozens of special ed positions, and pledged more resources for the program.

“I think that is a space where we have some room to grow,” she said.

In May, the Chicago Tribune published the first in a series revealing the district’s mishandling of sexual abuse cases over a decade.

“I was just sick to my stomach, but I also saw it as an opportunity to change the culture at CPS,” Jackson said. “I think we could easily come up with a plan to catch the bad guys, and CPS did a good job catching the perpetrators — but that’s not the only problem.”

Jackson stands by the district’s responses, from conducting more stringent background checks to creating an Office of Student Protections and Title IX, a department tasked with improving how the district handles allegations of abuse, harassment and discrimination, whether adult on student or student on student.

“We’re trying to raise a new generation of kids who understand appropriate boundaries, appropriate relationships, things you’re supposed to say — all of those I count as things that would not have happened had that story not exposed some of the things happening at the district,” Jackson said.

This year, Jackson unveiled an initiative to expand popular academic programs to neighborhood schools via an application process for principals. The idea is to raise the profile of neighborhood schools, which have been losing students — and funds — given the district’s per-pupil school funding approach.

Jackson also hired the district’s first equity officer.

That’s noteworthy, said Elizabeth Todd-Breland, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies education and said Jackson has spoken publicly about equity more than recent Chicago school chiefs. “But,” Todd-Breland said, “I think it still remains to be seen what a focus on equity in CPS looks like in practice.”

School closings backlash, and a look forward

Some of the strongest backlash against the homegrown schools chief has come from critics of her plans to close four Englewood high schools and replace them with a new $85 million campus and to close a high-performing South Side elementary school to make way for a new high school.

The Englewood schools were underenrolled and underperforming, according to the district, which shuttered 50 schools in 2013 under the same reasoning.

National Teachers Academy, meanwhile, was slated to lose its building and be converted into a high school until a court halted the plans. The ruling dealt Jackson one of the biggest setbacks of her tenure. It was likely the first court-ordered freeze of a school-closing measure in Chicago.

Jackson, who lives in the predominantly black Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side, said she’s gotten an earful from community members, even during trips to the grocery store, about her support for school closings in Englewood and at National Teachers Academy. But she insists that she backed the school closings to bring high-quality high schools and opportunities to areas needing more options.

Looking toward Year 2, Jackson said she is focused on “clearly articulating what equity means and what that framework means for the district.” That means a public statement that outlines concrete goals related to equity that addresses things like school funding, student achievement, procurement and workforce diversity. Jackson said she plans to propose ways to improve access to quality schools and programs, and to direct resources where they are most needed, such as placing case managers and social workers in high-needs schools.

In November, Jackson was chosen to co-chair an advisory group formed by Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker to build and support his education agenda over the next four years.

But it’s uncertain whether Jackson will still be schools chief next year once the city elects a new mayor, who will wield the power to replace both the school board and Jackson.

Nate Pietrini thinks Jackson should keep her job, whoever wins the election.

He’s a former district principal, co-host of education podcast “The Ed Couple,” and executive director of High Jump Chicago, who said Jackson brings much-needed positivity to the job for educators, school leaders, students and community members alike.

“She seems to be everywhere sharing the good news about CPS,” he said, “and trying to get people to feel good about the work they do.” He credits her for a spring listening tour across the city that he said helped to rebuild fractured public trust.

But he said Jackson could be clearer about plans for opening and closing schools.

Still, he said, “I hope the new mayor keeps her on board.”

Earlier in December, panelists at a Chalkbeat event about the new mayor and future of Chicago schools were split on whether Jackson should keep her job. Elizabeth Swanson of the Joyce Foundation said Jackson’s experience on the ground in school communities helps her connect with and inspire educators, and said she’s proven capable of running the district in her sole year in charge. Community organizer Jitu Brown took the opposite view and said situations like the National Teachers Academy fracas gave him pause.

But sitting in her corner office at 42 W. Madison Ave. earlier this month, Jackson didn’t mince words about her prospects.

“I expect to be in this office this time next year,” she said.