Surprise move

What Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to not seek re-election means for schools

PHOTO: Elaine Chen/Chalkbeat
Rahm Emanuel at Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village, moments before he announced this year's $1 billion capital plan.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to drop his reelection bid has serious implications for several big public education initiatives in Chicago and for district leadership, from the membership of the appointed school board to the district’s handpicked CEO, Janice Jackson.

Emanuel announced he’s not seeking a third term Tuesday morning at City Hall. The news came just hours after he rang an opening-day bell at Bronzeville Classical, a new selective-enrollment school that opened on the former site of Hartigan Elementary.

Emanuel’s legacy is closely tied to schools, as his remarks Tuesday indicated. Ticking off his accomplishments, he said, “What matters most in public life is four more years for our children, not four more years for me.”  

Since taking office in 2011, Emanuel’s public record on education has hit both highs and lows. He steered the system out of a $700 million budget deficit that fall, to a near-balanced budget this school year, all while extending the school day citywide, instituting full-day kindergarten, forging a better relationship between the public school district and City Colleges, and pushing for a universal pre-K plan — a $175 million, four-year undertaking that is in the initial rollout phase this fall.

Though universal pre-K has enjoyed bipartisan support in cities and states, his successor could presumably scuttle the early-stage effort, which builds upon funds from the federal government, the state, the city, and Chicago schools.

“It’s a significant expenditure, so it will and should be a topic of conversation,” said Robin Steans, the chair of the Steans Family Foundation and the former director of the education policy advocacy group Advance Illinois. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat.)

But, Steans added, the public is starting to understand that investments in early education could pay substantial dividends. “There’s no way you can look at the [kindergarten-readiness] data for Chicago or any other part of the state and think that our investment in early childhood is where it needs to be.”

Alongside Jackson, a former principal who took the top job in January, Emanuel has basked regularly in recognition from a Stanford University researcher, Sean Reardon, who issued a report last fall identifying Chicago as the fastest improving urban district in the country. But the mayor’s school policies also faced serious backlash, chief among them his decision, in 2013, to close 50 schools and displace more than 12,000 students amid declining enrollment. The mass closing was traumatic for neighborhoods, students, and teachers, according to a report released in May by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, and had at best a neutral impact on student achievement in some areas, and a negative impact in others.  

And, after a revolving door of school district leaders with deep flaws — including Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who is now in federal prison — it took Emanuel nearly his entire tenure to find a school chief who had the respect of rank-and-file educators.

In Jackson, a former principal who served as No. 2 under another flawed chief, Forrest Claypool, the mayor found someone who could navigate the murky politics of a school-choice district, spar with a prickly union, and size up troubling gaps in equity and pledge ways to tackle them.

Even last week, the mayor referenced the Stanford report when joining Jackson at Josephine Locke Elementary, in the Montclare neighborhood, to announce slight gains in math on a standardized test known as the NWEA. Explaining the test scores, Jackson called him the “genius” behind many initiatives.

The respect has been mutual. But as mayoral appointees, Jackson and the school board she reports to are vulnerable now that the election has shifted. The Chicago Teachers Union lost no time Tuesday saying it would likely choose a candidate to back based on who’s willing to call for an elected school board.

It’s time to “let the people of the city of Chicago decide about school leadership,” said Jesse Sharkey, who will be confirmed as president of the union Wednesday.

He sidestepped the question of whether the union would support Jackson once Emanuel’s predecessor was in place. “Janice Jackson is an educator so in that regard there are things happening in schools that are just plain old common sense.” But, Sharkey added, “the bar has been set so low,” and an elected school board would be the first step to raising it.

Emanuel’s decision to drop out of the race for the February election does not mean there will necessarily be a change in CEO, said Steve Tozer, a recently retired professor who mentored Jackson at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Education. He is the leader of several Illinois education policy initiatives. 

“Any mayor will want the school system to succeed,” said Tozer, “and Janice [Jackson] is the best bet right now.”

“Count me among those who are nervous,” said Steans, about the potential for change at the top. “While there’s always room to improve and review is healthy, in a world where CPS has been making steady and significant gains over a sustained period of time, I worry about the disruption that comes with big changes.”

Peter Cunningham, who worked for former Chicago schools chief and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan both in Chicago and Washington, D.C., said that the local civic and philanthropic community generally supports Jackson, which makes replacing her a risky move for any new mayor. “We’ve never had a fully homegrown product of CPS — someone who is a parent, teacher, administrator, a former principal  — runnings schools in the modern era.”

The district has enjoyed more financial stability this year, with principals receiving budgets in the spring and fewer layoffs. That stability comes despite several seismic policy changes in the wake of scandals involving special education and student sexual assault at the hands of adults.

When students returned to school Tuesday, they were greeted at some schools with posters near the front doors that spell out the district’s new procedures for reporting sexual misconduct.

Instability at the top of the district contributed to its lapse in handling student sex cases, according to a preliminary report released in August by former federal prosecutor Maggie Hickey. Regarding turnover of CEO and network chiefs, she wrote, “This turnover makes it difficult to instill and maintain productive policies and procedures, stable systems independent of any person, and cultures of compliance.”

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.

An Introduction

What you need to know about Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ interim superintendent

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang/Chalkbeat
Aleesia Johnson was named the interim superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.

Even before she was chosen as interim superintendent last week, Aleesia Johnson was a rising star in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Johnson spearheaded the district’s innovation strategy under departing superintendent Lewis Ferebee, developing controversial partnerships with nonprofit or charter operators and giving schools more freedom.

About Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ new interim superintendent:

  • Johnson started at Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 overseeing the district’s innovation schools. She was promoted to deputy superintendent of academics earlier this year.
  • Johnson started her career as a teacher through Teach for America. She came to Indianapolis to teach at KIPP Indy and later led the charter network’s middle school. She has also worked for Teach for America’s Indianapolis office.
  • She graduated from Agnes Scott College and received master’s degrees from the University of Michigan and Oakland City University.
  • An Evansville native, Johnson comes from a family of educators. Her mother was a longtime teacher and is now an elementary school principal. Her grandfather was one of the few black administrators in Evansville in the 1970s and 1980s, she said.
  • Johnson has three children who all attend district schools.

Her work overseeing innovation schools — sometimes used as a turnaround approach for the most struggling schools — has transformed the district into a more decentralized, hybrid model that has attracted the national spotlight. Because of innovation schools, Indianapolis is widely regarded by reform advocates as a district among the “most inventive and dynamic in the country,” as the Center on Reinventing Public Education put it last year.

Now Johnson, 40, is the first African-American woman to serve as the district’s superintendent, and she appears a likely contender when the district begins its search for a permanent successor to Ferebee.

“I’m under no illusion of the challenges that face our district and the tough decisions that will have to be made,” Johnson said in a district blog post about her appointment.

As deputy superintendent of academics, Johnson has often been a public face of the district, speaking on panels about racial equity in education and forums about the district’s innovation work. Personable and confident, she’s well respected within the district and in Indianapolis education circles, even though her work with innovation schools can be controversial.

As a key leader in Ferebee’s administration, Johnson is closely tied to charter schools and school reform in Indianapolis. A former Teach for America and KIPP Indy leader, she has said she supports the path the district is on, which means she’ll likely have the support of the majority of the school board. Johnson told the Center on Reinventing Public Education that she was drawn to Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 because she “connected really strongly with the vision the superintendent laid out.”

“She’s had the opportunity to see first-hand some of our strategy and transformation efforts,” Ferebee said Friday.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the district would likely continue to broaden its innovation strategy. A district of some 30,000 students, made up of mostly students of color and from poor families, Indianapolis Public Schools serves about a quarter of its students in 20 innovation schools.

In interviews, Johnson has often touted how innovation schools can move more nimbly than schools that have to wait for district-level changes.

“I think what we’re trying to do is create a third way of thinking — how do you marry empowering schools with flexibility with lots of the resources that are available to schools in a traditional public schools district structure,” Johnson told the Reinventing America’s Schools project, a pro-charter school reform movement led by David Osborne.

It’s hard to make a blanket statement on the performance of innovation schools. Because most of them are less than three years old, many are graded based on the growth of their students alone without taking into account their proficiency levels. Many of the schools have seen early gains in passing rates on state tests.

Johnson has been upfront about the challenges of the innovation strategy. In the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” Osborne wrote that she acknowledges “constant problems to be worked out,” such as funding to support innovation schools and uprooting teachers when schools convert to innovation.

“It’s never, ‘No, we can’t do that,’” she said in the book. “It’s, ‘Oh, we’ve never done that, so let’s talk about it and figure out how to get it done.’”

In an interview with the local Indy Education blog, Johnson said she invites critics to see the changes strong leaders can make in innovation schools.

She also said innovation can allow community members to feel like they have ownership of the schools in their neighborhood: “I see this work as an incredible opportunity for there to be, unlike ever before, a much stronger community voice, much stronger way for parents to interact and engage in their schools.”

Still, Johnson was careful to note Friday that she won’t be a carbon-copy of her former boss, who has both won the hearts of many national reformers and rankled community members with the dramatic changes to the district. “I think obviously I am a different leader,” she said.

She won’t be immune to criticism. The IPS Community Coalition, a grassroots group that is critical of innovation schools, posted on Facebook about Johnson’s appointment to interim superintendent: “Although that is a great milestone for IPS in terms of equity and diversity, we have continued concern about the IPS agenda. The statement this appointment makes about pushing innovation schools and charter ‘choices’ on poor, and black and brown students is concerning — as charters have not proved to be more effective, nor equitable in their treatment of students.”

Others, though, including school board members, have heralded her appointment. Andrew Pillow, a teacher who worked with Johnson at KIPP Indy, wrote on the Indy Education blog that Johnson is “infinitely qualified and the perfect choice to lead Indianapolis Public Schools.”

So far, Johnson has said she will wait until the school board decides the superintendent search process to say whether she’s throwing her hat in the ring to lead the district long-term.

Asked again in her first television interview as interim superintendent this week, she said, “We shall see.”