The head of Chicago Public Schools is leaving after more than three years running the nation’s third largest school district. This comes on the heels of resignation announcements by two other top school district leaders.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said a nationwide search for a new CEO will begin immediately. CPS CEO Janice Jackson took the helm in January 2018 after serving as chief education officer for three years. Jackson said she chose not to renew her contract, which expires on June 30, saying the time was right to “to pass the torch to new leadership for the next chapter.”
The mayor and others heaped praise on the outgoing CEO.
“Throughout my time as mayor, Dr. Jackson’s steadfast partnership and fearless leadership has been beyond invaluable, and in more ways than one has made our city a better place in tangible ways,” Lightfoot said at a Monday afternoon news conference. “That’s why, beyond this feeling of sadness, is a feeling of intense gratitude that words cannot begin to fully describe.”
CPS Board President Miguel del Valle described Jackson as “one of the strongest leaders I have ever met … I was impressed with her leadership, I was impressed with her tenacity. I was impressed with her willingness to take on tough issues, as the mayor said, head on, without hesitation.”
Jackson’s exit is part of a exodus of top leaders at CPS. Chief Operating Officer Arnie Rivera and Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade have already announced their departures. McDade will become superintendent of Prince Williams County Public Schools in Virginia.
Lightfoot said each of them leaves a void, but dismissed the notion that there is a mass leadership vacuum at CPS.
“Dr. Jackson and her team have built a very strong group of leaders across the system,” Lightfoot said. “Not one person can make everything work, it takes a massive team, and there is a massive team at all different levels.”
But the Chicago Teachers Union raised concerns over the “mass exodus” and called on the mayor to involve CPS parents and communities in hiring the next CEO.
“We are hopeful the mayor can improve on her ability to work collaboratively and cohesively with others, in particular her own staff and appointees in CPS, because trauma support, special education and bilingual education resources, and equitable spending of federal funding remain high priorities for families and educators,” the CTU said in a statement.
Jackson said she has no immediate full-time plans for after June, except to spend more time with her family and to take a break after a grueling three years. She said she has no plans to run run for elected office, except perhaps for a seat on proposed elected Chicago school board, which is moving ahead in the state Legislature.
The outgoing CEO would only say that that she plans to continue to “devote my professional life to public education” and on lifting up “students and families who need us most.” But she said her future would not include running another school district. She said she plans to serve as a senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Jackson insisted that she will remain tightly focused thorough the end of the school year on her work at CPS, including helping the school district prepare to return to school full time next year.
Jackson was the fourth CEO named by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and was seen as the one he got right. She grew up in the city’s school system, going from teacher to principal to leadership. She was only 41 when she became CEO.
A product of Chicago Public Schools and former CPS social studies teacher and principal, Jackson is deeply proud of her CPS roots. She is also a CPS parent — a role she said she plans to use in the future as a platform to speak out.
“This job and my entire career has been more than I have ever imagined,” Jackson said, who thanked her staff and mayors Lightfoot and Emanuel for supporting her. “This was a dream job. Imagine being able to work and serve in the district that gave so much to you.”
In a letter to staff and CPS families Monday, addressed to her “CPS family,” Jackson referenced a memory from more than 40 years ago when she first enrolled in a CPS Head Start program.
“The fact that one of my earliest memories in life has CPS at the center foreshadowed a lifelong love for our district and undying passion for education,” Jackson wrote. “CPS has been an integral part of my life first as a student, most importantly as a parent, and most humbly as the CEO.”
During her tenure, Jackson has been most proud of research showing that student test scores were improving at a faster rate than nearly all other school districts in the nation.
She also regularly references the expansion of academic programming, particularly on the city’s South and West Sides, a new pre-K curriculum initiative and a renewed focus on equity in budgeting, enrollment in the city’s selective enrollment schools and other areas. On Monday, she cited as her proudest achievement the opening two new schools on the South Side, where she grew up.
Jackson also came in as graduation rates were on the upswing. Finances also have improved after passage of a new state funding law.
However, Jackson was not able to bring labor peace. The Chicago Teachers Union went on strike in 2019 and was able to get the school district to put in written promises to hire nurses and social workers for every school. Jackson said she wanted to make these hires, but did not want to commit to it.
The last year has been especially tumultuous for Jackson and the CPS administration. When they tried to reopen the schools in February, they faced opposition from the union and strike threats. At times, CPS administration seemed caught between the union and the mayor, who did not want to be seen as bending to the union.
At Monday’s news conference, Jackson addressed the often charged rhetoric that accompanies the disputes with the teachers union.
“I think it’s ugly and it needs to stop and it doesn’t help our district and CPS is an outlier,” said Jackson, who argued that she often bit her tongue and refrained from saying anything negative publicly because she knew children were watching. “It’s not normal, and I hope that it changes for the sake of our children because I think the people who benefit the least from all of that are the children of CPS.”
“I know how to get from 79th and Racine to the C-suite — and you don’t get there without a high-quality education,” Jackson said. “And so, we have to stay focused on that, and cut the other crap out.”
Jackson is leaving a job with a $300,000 salary. In December she got a $40,000 raise.