Illinois new chief educator: Pritzker board appoints first woman of color to the top job

Gov. J.B. Pritzker recommended the first Latina to the state’s top schools job on Tuesday, a day after he replaced all but one of the state’s nine school board members.

Carmen Ayala, formerly the superintendent of west suburban Berwyn North SD 98, was sworn in immediately after the announcement of her appointment to Illinois’ top education post, at the board’s monthly board meeting on Tuesday.

“This is a historic day in Illinois… and I’m very grateful and blessed to be part of that,” Ayala said in a brief statement after officially taking the job. “I hope to roll up my sleeves and work hand in hand with this board as well as everyone across the state to make sure that … we are second to none in providing the best education we can for the children we serve.”

She began her career at Chicago Public Schools, where she was a teacher for five years. In her most recent role, Ayala was both the first Latina and the first female leader. The suburban district, just west of Chicago, serves 2,900 students, 81 percent of whom are Latino and 89 percent low-income.

During Ayala’s time in Berwyn, the district moved from one of the lowest-performing in math and reading in elementary grades to outperforming most of its neighboring schools. It credited its growth to a focus on early-grade math skills.

She was also a member of Pritzker’s advisory group created to help craft his education policy.

As head of the state board, Ayala will have to tackle a shortfall in education funding and a teacher shortage in early education and in K-12 schools in rural areas. She also will oversee new guidelines for compliance with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act. An independent state monitor is additionally overseeing reform of Chicago’s troubled special education program, which routinely delayed and denied services to students.

She replaces Tony Smith, who stepped down at the end of January after Pritzker did not extend his appointment Smith oversaw a seismic shift in state school funding by directing state funds to the neediest districts.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that J.B. Pritzker appointed the state school superintendent. Pritzker recommended the state school superintendent to the members of the Illinois school board, and that group approved the appointment.