Top Three Challenges For Homegrown Star Taking Over Chicago Schools

CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson will officially take over as acting CEO once Forrest Claypool, who has resigned, exits on Dec. 31. Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools

Sarah Karp

Update, Dec. 18: Acting Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson is expected to be named permanent CEO next month. The Chicago Board of Education will vote on her appointment in January, a schools spokesman told WBEZ.

Janice Jackson moves into the executive suite at Chicago Public Schools at the end of this month on a high note. CPS is more stable financially than it has been in years and the district has earned praise from national and local researchers who say the city’s students are making remarkable progress on standardized tests.

After a string of non-educators and outsiders, Jackson is a homegrown star who grew up in a neighborhood of bungalows and three-flats on the South Side and attended public schools from preschool through high school. She has served as chief education officer since July 2015. The mayor, advocates, and even the cantankerous Chicago Teachers Union praise the 40-year-old CPS parent. Jackson comes in as acting CEO, but will be named the permanent chief in January, a CPS spokesman said.

But no one thinks Jackson has an easy road ahead. She’s taking over for a schools chief who resigned after being accused of orchestrating a “full-blown cover-up.” CEO Forrest Claypool is the second chief in a row to leave under a cloud, albeit nothing like his predecessor. Former CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is in prison after scheming for kickbacks in exchange for CPS contracts.

What’s more, Jackson takes the job at time when politics is in the air. The next mayoral election is in just over a year.

The school district leadership is a three-legged stool with the CEO, the board of education president, and the mayor all weighing in — with Emanuel’s voice ultimately more powerful under Chicago’s system of mayoral control. But working in Jackson’s favor is a simple reality: Emanuel will not want to lose yet another chief executive officer.

For Jackson personally, her lifelong ties to Chicago and her network of colleagues and friends are seen as attributes. But they could also make it harder for her to make difficult decisions that undercut longtime allies or even mentors.

Jackson, who officially takes over as acting CEO once Claypool exits on Dec. 31, isn’t doing interviews yet. But those who know her are confident she’s up for the challenge, though some express worry about a “good human being” being put in compromising positions.

A long list of admirers

Bill Gerstein was Jackson’s principal at South Shore High School in the early 2000s. She was a strong teacher in the social studies department, Gerstein said, interested in project-based learning and the arts. She also coached a championship debate team.

From the beginning, Gerstein considered her a leader.  

“She commands a lot of respect,” he said, even in her early 20s. “A lot of leadership has to do with how you move around a space. So even though she looked young, she always knew she was in charge.”

Just a few years later, with Gerstein’s encouragement, she became principal of a new small high school opening in West Garfield Park on the city’s West Side.

Greg Jones, now principal of Kenwood High School, met Jackson soon after. She shined so much as principal of Al Raby that she was tapped to open Westinghouse high school, a selective enrollment school with a career and technical education program.

Westinghouse, in a new state-of-the-art building, was to be the marquee high school on the West Side. Jones, her assistant principal, said he marveled at the way she was able to handle community members. Jackson, the middle child of five and the daughter of a cab driver and a dispatcher who went on to open their own business, knew how to make things happen.

I was “really impressed that someone this young could galvanize people and influence people,” he said.

Jones describes her as highly competitive, but also one of the best listeners he has ever met.

CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson talks with students at White Elementary School at the beginning of the 2017 school year. (Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools)

School closings

Jackson is able to make tough decisions, Jones said, but he acknowledges some of them could be hard for her.

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching of all decisions she will likely confront is the prospect of closing a school. A five-year moratorium on school closings put in place after the mass closings of 2013 lifts next year, and CPS once again faces plummeting enrollment and more than 100 half-empty school buildings.

When it became clear last week that Jackson would be taking over as CEO, a first demand by advocates was for her to abandon plans to close three neighborhood high schools in Englewood and one in West Englewood.

That seems unlikely. As chief education officer, Jackson has been the point person on the Englewood schools plan.

She also has defended the most controversial part of the plan, which calls for shuttering the four schools before a replacement school opens in 2019. This leaves the impoverished South Side community without a neighborhood high school for a year and scatters the current students to other schools.

Jackson told WBEZ it would be “inhumane” to keep the four schools open even one more year. Because they have so few children, they don’t have a budget to provide basic classes, she said.

Using that as a standard opens the door to more closings. Thirteen other high schools have fewer than 270 students this year, a WBEZ analysis shows. That's the bare minimum CPS said it needs to offer basic programming. Most of those schools earned low academic ratings and are in buildings that could fit two to three times the number of students they currently serve.

At the same time, because most of the most under-enrolled schools serve predominantly black students, school closings often lead to charges of racism.

Jackson also may confront the potential closure of schools close to her heart. Al Raby, the West Side school she founded, has seen its student enrollment drop by 43 percent over the past decade. It has a low academic rating now and  a graduation rate well below the district average.

And Cook Elementary, where Jackson was a student, has a low rating, has been losing students, and has enough space for double its current population.

In an interview last year with two CPS principals on The Ed Couple podcast, Jackson talked about facing Cook’s closing. It was on a 2013 list but was ultimately spared.

“At that time, I was a principal, very successful, life had worked out for me. But I know what I personally felt to see an institution I had attended, that did a good job educating and nurturing me basically on a list that said this school should not be open,” she said.


This issue of school closings leads directly into another dicey subject. Low enrollment schools are particularly problematic because each school’s budget is tied to its enrollment. As schools lose students and their budgets contract, they lose teachers and are unable to afford electives, extracurriculars, and even basic classes.

Critics of what is per-pupil or “student-based budgeting” say it leads to a cycle of disinvestment that ultimately dooms schools.

There’s some indication Jackson has wanted to revisit student-based budgeting, which has only been used since 2013.

But it is questionable how much power she will have. Typically, the mayor names the CEO and another top CPS administrator to make up for the area where the CEO is weak. Emanuel appointed Jackson to complement Claypool, who did not have education experience.

Therefore, it is likely that Emanuel will appoint someone to fill the chief operating officer position or he will keep Claypool’s financial team in place.

And while CPS is more financially stable than it has been in the past, it is still fragile and debt-ridden. CPS got a big bump financially this year after passage of a new education funding law. But the school district and others around the state are counting on state lawmakers to sustain and increase funding in future years. That is far from guaranteed, given the state’s own precarious finances.

And CEOs are always confronting people with their hands out. Terry Mazany, who served as CPS chief briefly in 2011, said he was surprised at how many people look to the school district for money and how hard it can be to turn them down.

“CPS is a $6 billion trough that feeds many interests, and too often, children are the least of those interests,” Mazany said. “You have to be courageous in the face of political interests and stand with the interests of those children.”

Mazany, who worked during Mayor Richard M. Daley’s last months in office, said it may save Jackson some “heartbreak and heartburn” to accept the power of the mayor early on.

Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson at a Chicago Public Schools Board of Education meeting on Jan. 25, 2017. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

Special education

Topping Jackson’s to-do list is confronting the remnants of the Claypool administration. Just this week, the state announced that it will conduct a “public inquiry” into the school system’s special education program.

This comes after a WBEZ investigation found that Claypool used outside auditors to orchestrate an overhaul of the program that serves 51,000 special needs students. That overhaul led to fewer services for kids but more savings for Chicago Public Schools. Claypool had close ties to these auditors.

CPS also changed the way it funded special education in a way that made these cuts harder to identify.

WBEZ’s investigation was spurred by complaints by parents, teachers, and advocates, as well as principals who, through surveys with their association, said the changes were untenable.

Technically, Jackson as chief education officer oversaw the special education department, according to CPS’ organizational chart. But Jackson mostly sat silent when parents complained at board meetings and has said nothing publicly in response to WBEZ’s findings. Instead, Claypool strongly defended the overhaul.

Rod Estvan, education organizer for Access Living, said he hopes Jackson will reverse the overhaul.

“She is very knowledgeable of schools,” Estvan said. “She understands a lot of this stuff.”

Jackson’s Ed Couple interview from last year might provide some clues — not only to how she will look at special education, but also to how she will lead.

“I think of everything through the lens of a principal first,” she said. “... If the people making policy decisions or guideline decisions don’t understand what is happening in the school, it is going to be a disconnect. Implementation won’t happen the way that it should.”

This was Jackson’s thinking one year into her role as chief education officer. She’s now the head honcho, responsible for balancing the demands of the mayor, principals and parents, teachers and the community, while also watching CPS’ finances and keeping it afloat. Time will only tell how she balances it all.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.