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Chicago’s New Schools Chief Open To Special Education Changes

The new acting head of Chicago Public Schools said she wishes the school district had fully acknowledged problems with its overhaul of its special education program before now, telling WBEZ in an interview Wednesday that she is open to potential changes to the program.

“I also think it's fair to say that we rolled out too much too fast, and we did have to walk back some of those things,” Acting CEO Janice Jackson said. “I do think that we have to take another look at this.”  

A WBEZ investigation this fall found that sweeping changes to the city’s special education program resulted in cutbacks in services for special needs students but savings for the school district.

Jackson was named interim chief last month after Forrest Claypool resigned. He stepped down after the schools’ inspector general recommended he be fired for trying to thwart an ethics investigation. The Chicago Board of Education is expected to vote in January to make Jackson, formerly the district’s chief education officer, the permanent chief executive officer.

Jackson is unlike any other recent CEO overseeing the nation’s third-largest school district. She attended CPS from preschool through high school graduation and is also a CPS parent. She catapulted up the ladder inside the school district from teacher to principal to district administrator.

“You'd be hard pressed to find someone who loves CPS more than I do,” Jackson said.

In a wide-ranging interview Wednesday, the new CEO said she had no plans for “sweeping closings” of under-enrolled schools. Jackson also announced that more than 90 percent of eighth graders had applied to CPS high schools through a new online single application system, surpassing a 75 percent participation goal.

Below are highlights from Jackson’s conversation with WBEZ education reporter Sarah Karp.

On restoring public trust after the last two CEOs were forced to resign

Janice Jackson: Obviously, that makes my job much more difficult, but no one has a more personal stake than in Chicago Public Schools than I do. And I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who loves CPS more than I do. And the reason that's important is because my goal is to see this district be successful and I don't want to do anything personally or professionally that casts CPS in a negative light.

On how being a CPS parent shapes Jackson's work

Jackson: Throughout my entire career, I've always talked about the fact that I'm a graduate of Chicago Public Schools, but I don't think I realized how important that commitment is until I had my own child and decided that CPS was the right approach. And I think that, like so many parents, we entrust our children to the district and with that comes a great degree of trust but also responsibility, and it has to be a two-way street.

I consider myself to be a lucky parent. My kids go to an amazing school. I want those opportunities to be shared by people throughout the district. When I visit some schools, I see some people who are really getting those opportunities and they're getting everything that we are promoting in our vision as a district. And, then quite honestly, I go to some schools and it's not quite there yet.

And so what you will see during my tenure is much more intentionality around equitable distribution of opportunity in the district. That means more programming in areas that haven't seen that type of programming, more investment in structural and capital improvement in some of these areas.

On WBEZ’s finding that CPS’ special education overhaul led to cutbacks in services but savings for the school district

Jackson: I think the district has acknowledged some of the issues with the overhaul. I think where I start on this is clear: CPS' special education needs to be fixed and it needed to be fixed years ago. I think some of the changes that we put in place were the right changes. We needed better parameters, better guidelines for how we administer dollars and programming in special education.

But I also think it's fair to say that we rolled out too much too fast. And we did have to walk back some of those things. And I wish there was more of an acknowledgment of some of that.

But with that said, I do think that we have to take another look at this because I'm not happy with the response that we're getting from parents, whether it's at the board meeting or through responses that come into our office. We have to take a look at this but I don't think debating this in the media is the appropriate way and so I'm looking forward to the oversight that's going to come from the Illinois State Board of Education's public inquiry process. You have the state there, who has oversight authority over CPS, to really let us know what is it that you can do. What is it that you need to stop doing.

And the commitment that I'm making to the public is that if they identify things that we are doing that we should not be doing, we will make those changes. I'm happy that it's happening at this time because it's happening in tandem with the upcoming budget process. If there are changes that we need to make, we will be making those changes in preparation for the upcoming school year.

On the fate of under-enrolled schools: WBEZ found 17 high schools without enough students to support a basic schedule of classes

Jackson: I think when you look at the enrollment issues in CPS, the first place people go and it's a natural inclination is to talk about school closings. In the past, the district has conducted sweeping closings of schools. I don't see foresee anything like that on the horizon. I think that's important to note.

I think it's a complex issue and we have to look at this neighborhood by neighborhood. And that's what you've seen us do up until this date.

On the pressure to continue CPS’ academic gains of recent years

Jackson: Obviously, there is a lot of pressure to be successful. But I put most of it on myself. That's just how I operate.

One of the things I'd like to see from an academic standpoint is to really ensure that we have a focus on teaching and learning, and students learning for the sake of learning.

I think that kind of gets to your concerns around testing and some of those other types of things. I think it's great that all the indicators are pointing in the right direction. That's something I'm really proud of. But I also know that there's a next stage. We want to make sure our kids are really learning authentically in our schools so that when they go to college, they are ready, prepared, and persist.

So, we're doing much better with test scores and graduation rates and college enrollment but [college] persistence is the area that I'm focusing on now. If we want to see changes in the number of students who actually graduate from college, if we want to see that number continue to go up, we have to make sure our kids are prepared — and that means preparing for college and the world after high school, and not preparing them for a test.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button above to hear an audio version of Sarah Karp’s interview with Janice Jackson.

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