Room at the top: Chicago schools chief looks to fill leadership vacancies

Chicago Public Schools seeks two critical additions to its senior leadership team — one to oversee the district’s $135 million curriculum overhaul — and the other to lead its troubled special education program amid state-mandated reforms.

The search to fill those vacancies and other cabinet-level positions follows the recent departure of several top officials, some of whom left for bigger titles at smaller districts.  

Related: Chicago special education reforms slow to get off ground, monitor tells state school board

That leaves schools chief Janice Jackson looking to firm up her inner circle amid shifting power dynamics at City Hall under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and with a new school board more willing to challenge Jackson publicly about policies, as last month’s contentious vote on a new school rating policy showed.

Mike Magee, director of the D.C.-based education policy group Chiefs for Change, said it’s a good sign that other school districts are poaching administrators from Jackson’s cabinet to elevate as superintendents.

The nation’s third-largest school district shouldn’t face any shortage of applicants vying to replace them, he said, calling Chicago an attractive location for upstart school leaders given its scale, buzz around improvements, and Jackson’s rising star.

“Jackson has a reputation as being both a highly effective and innovative leader and someone who cares very deeply about developing her own people,” Magee said. “That makes CPS very attractive to talented emerging education leaders across the country as a place they want to work.”

Related: Chicago teachers to get new resources as district announces $135 million, two-year curriculum overhaul

Those who join Jackson’s team will have their work cut out for them, especially the next special education chief, who will be charged with helping chart a more equitable direction for the district’s office serving students with disabilities — under the watchful eye of the state, advocates and parents. 

A state investigation found the district routinely delayed and denied services to students with disabilities, in violation of federal law. The district serves about 52,000 special education students, about 14% of its enrollment, according to the job description.

Former special education chief Elizabeth Keenan left in April to run the Special School District of St. Louis County, Missouri, which serves more than 24,000 students with disabilities and also operates two technical high schools serving about 1,800 high school students.  A veteran administrator who used to run Chicago special education, Dick Smith, now serves as its acting director while the district seeks Keenan’s replacement. 

Related: Chicago is changing its elementary school ratings. Here’s why educators are watching closely.

In June, Anna Alvarado, the district’s chief of teaching and learning, left to run the Freeport School District, which educates 4,100 students in northwest Illinois. The district is looking for her successor, who will “oversee the creation and implementation of a preK-12 curriculum system,” among other duties, according to the job posting.

The district is also several months into an initiative to bring local teachers and national education companies together to create culturally responsive instructional materials for all subjects and all grades. 

This will be the first time the district offers a central repository for curriculum of all levels, which previously was left up to teachers and principals at schools to develop. Teachers won’t be required to use the new curriculum, but education officials say they expect wide adoption nonetheless.

The district has other vacancies — for chief internal auditor and controller, both positions with interim stand-ins. There’s also an opening for Network 15 chief

And the district is searching for a chief portfolio officer, a new position tasked with supporting the district’s school choice model, managing enrollment for selective and specialized schools and programs like magnet, selective enrollment and vocational schools, and overseeing the expansion of the online school application platform GoCPS. 

Another vacancy is chief administrative officer, but the district hasn’t begun the search to fill it.

School planning and strategy chief Elizabeth Kirby left in March after 23 years with the district to take a superintendent job with the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, which serves about 6,500 students in Northeast Ohio. She was replaced by Bogdana Chkoumbova.

Former Chief Officer of Language & Cultural Education Ernesto Matias, who also previously served as principal of Wells High School Wells Community Academy High School on the Northwest Side, left earlier this year for a job at the state board of education, and was replaced by Jorge Macias in May. 

In July, the district approved hiring Wally Stock as treasurer and Alfonso Carmona as Network 10 chief. Carmona is a former principal at Healy Elementary School, and most recently worked as superintendent of St. Augustine Preparatory Academy, a Christian school serving 900 students in Milwaukee from pre-K to 12th grade.