‘Here to serve’: Five things to know about José Torres, interim CEO of Chicago Public Schools

Dr. José Torres speaks at a podium in front of the flags of the United States and Chicago.
José Torres speaks at a press conference Monday after being appointed interim CPS CEO by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Torres is not a candidate to permanently succeed schools chief Janice Jackson, but he takes the helm with more than three decades of education work under his belt. (Screenshot courtesy of City of Chicago)

Two days into retirement, after a career in education spanning more than three decades, José Torres got an unexpected phone call.

It was Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, asking the former Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy president if he wanted to serve as interim schools chief. 

His answer? Yes.

“I’m here to serve. I’m not here to build my resume,” Torres said at a Monday press conference. “I actually was sitting under a palm tree yesterday in front of the ocean, thinking that I should get my head examined, but … we’re doing this for the mission and for the work.”

Pending board approval, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot named Torres interim schools chief Monday. City Hall has already said he’s not a candidate for a permanent role, but Torres, who spent six years as superintendent at Illinois’ second-largest school district, Elgin’s U-46, could be at the helm for several months depending on the speed of the search to succeed Jackson.  

As interim CEO, Torres has a steep challenge ahead: he’ll need to oversee the initial stages of a full CPS reopening, work to address pandemic learning gaps, re-engage students and families, and revamp support for students with disabilities. And that’s just for starters. 

Here’s what to know about the educator who has been thrust into a high-profile role atop the nation’s third largest school district.

He intends on fully reopening schools this fall.

Returning students to classrooms five days a week this fall is Torres’ number one priority, in line with the district’s May announcement. Citing student isolation as a barrier to well-being, he said at Monday’s press conference that he’ll work closely with parents, educators, and other stakeholders to make that happen. 

Torres’ next priority is re-enrolling and re-engaging students and families in CPS, with a focus on early childhood education and the district’s oldest students. Torres also said he’s committed to maximizing summer learning programs to ensure students are prepared for in-person learning.

He started an equity office in the suburbs long before CPS did.

Under Torres’ guidance, U-46 saw its first Chief of Equity and Social Justice in 2011, well before CPS’ Office of Equity launched in 2018. The U-46 Office of Equity and Social Justice was built to promote closing the district’s achievement gap, and provided support for school leaders navigating district- and school-level conversations about race. 

“The power of diversity is immediate and personal, especially when seen at the highest levels of organizations,” Torres said in a 2019 op-ed

As superintendent, Torres started U-46’s “Ten Boys” initiative, which paired school administrator mentors with groups of boys within the district. He also launched the Superintendent’s Scholarship Program, which provided financial support for first-generation college students. 

Torres praised Jackson at Monday’s press conference for her focus on developing a centralized curriculum, providing equity grants to schools struggling with enrollment, and expanding the pre-school system

“The focus on equity under Dr. Jackson’s leadership is commendable,” he said. “Race, zip code, and socioeconomic status should not really predict the future, but in our society it has. But it cannot. It should not.”

He overhauled Elgin’s bilingual program.

In a district where about a third of students are English language learners, Torres implemented a dual language program. In a 2014 interview, Torres said the model, which started as a program for kindergartners, first- and second-grade students and added one grade level per year, was built on the motto: “You don’t have to lose a language to learn another language.” 

The program was set up to allocate instructional time so that kindergarteners received 80% of instruction in Spanish, with that percentage decreasing each year until reaching 50% in third through eighth grade. The program currently serves more than 11,000 students through 11th grade.

During his tenure, Torres nearly quadrupled the district’s number of appointed principals of color, many of whom were bilingual. Torres said in a 2019 op-ed the move facilitated student growth and parent engagement.   

At Monday’s press conference, Torres delivered his greeting in Spanish and then summarized his opening remarks in Spanish. 

“¡Buenas tardes a todos!” he said. “Good afternoon, everyone!”

His career was not without controversy.

Torres ushered in a U-46 grading system that barred students from receiving zeroes for their work. Supporters of the scale said removing zero grades could increase student engagement, and that zero grades are unduly punitive. Critics said the scale would exacerbate grade inflation and credit students for work they didn’t do. 

Additionally, Torres came under fire for signing a contentious 2010 manifesto titled “How to fix our schools.” The statement called for performance-based teacher compensation, hiring and firing regardless of seniority.

“As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher,” the manifesto said. 

The manifesto further advocated for the expansion of charter schools, an unpopular concept with unions at the time. 

As well, Torres was a 2005 fellow with the Eli Broad Urban Superintendents Academy, a reform-era training program that has been criticized for taking a business model approach to public education. 

Torres and his wife are both teachers.

Before attending the Harvard University Graduate School of Education or taking higher visibility administration roles, Torres started his career as a middle school teacher and human relations specialist in Montgomery County Public Schools. His wife, Isabel Torres, is a board certified teacher and instructional coach in Elgin.

That classroom background is something he shares with Jackson, who leaned often on her educator resume when making tough decisions. Jackson said Torres’ educator experience, alongside his leadership work, will help him do the job well. 

“Dr. Torres was the first person that I reached out to when we were trying to figure out who would be the right person to lead during this interim time,” Jackson said. “It makes it much easier to step away from this role … knowing that I’m leaving it in good hands.”

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