Who's In Charge

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

PHOTO: Chicago Public Schools
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson.

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.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel/Chalkbeat Chicago
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.

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.