Janice Jackson On An Elected School Board, Declining Enrollment And Why She’s Leaving CPS

As CPS CEO Janice Jackson prepares to step down, she urges the next CEO to focus on academics and not get distracted by the “silly stuff.”

Chicago Public Schools CEO at the 2019 opening of Englewood STEM High School, which she calls one of her proudest accomplishments. She is resigning in June. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago Public Schools CEO at the 2019 opening of Englewood STEM High School, which she calls one of her proudest accomplishments. She is resigning in June. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Janice Jackson On An Elected School Board, Declining Enrollment And Why She’s Leaving CPS

As CPS CEO Janice Jackson prepares to step down, she urges the next CEO to focus on academics and not get distracted by the “silly stuff.”

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Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson surprised the city this week by announcing plans to step down from her “dream job.”

After a little more than three years on the job, she said, with obvious understatement, that she’s a “little tired” and ready to pass “the torch to new leadership.”

She’s still in charge until June 30, but she’s doing her exit interviews now — and freely sharing what’s on her mind.

The CPS grad sat down with WBEZ’s Sarah Karp (also a CPS grad) for an open-ended conversation about whether she expects a fight with the teachers union about a fall reopening (yes), an elected school board for Chicago (she’s opposed), about declining enrollment (“a huge problem”) and why she’ll never run another school district (“because Chicago is the best”).

Read on for highlights from the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

The next CEO will come in with the mayor up for re-election in 2023, the task of helping schools recover from the pandemic and arguably a teachers union with more power. What do you think his or her biggest challenge will be?

The return to normal daily in-person instruction. One of the things that I learned from this pandemic is that getting people to return to normal activities, whether we’re talking about going to school or going to church, or going out to eat, is hard. And so I think the next CEO will be paying a lot of attention to making sure families feel safe with their kids coming back to school every day.

I also hope the thing the next CEO pays the most attention to is the academic performance of our students. It’s really easy to get distracted in this job, and it would be a shame if we get a quality CEO who ends up spending most of his or her time dealing with, for lack of a better phrase, silly stuff. They should be focused on getting students back into school and making sure we account for the learning loss. When we spend more time talking about political issues and other things that don’t really impact what happens in the classroom — that’s what I’m referring to as things that are unnecessary.

Is there any advice you have for the mayor on how to better support the next CEO?

No, I think the mayor supported me completely. I have no complaints. And if I did, I definitely wouldn’t share. But I do want to be clear, because I feel like people keep trying to make something that doesn’t exist, the mayor and I have a great relationship. I know she respects me and I respect her. I’m glad that she allowed me to continue to lead under her administration, and I’m going to still support her in other ways when I step out of this role.

Why are you opposed to an elected school board for Chicago? And what do you think of a proposed hybrid board that mixes appointed and elected members?

When I hear ‘elected school board,’ I hear parents saying they want a voice. They want more transparency, they want a seat at the table, and they want to be involved in the decision-making process. And I completely agree with that. But my fear is that the school board will end up with people serving on them who do not represent the communities. We’ve seen that happen.

[An elected board] is going to be a board of special interests going against the Chicago Teachers Union. Members on the board will not be individuals who represent the interests of the students first. It will be representing the interests of organizations and whatever agenda they are supporting. I’m fundamentally against that.

If we have a school board that is led by parents, that should be a requirement, and parents are up there making decisions for kids, I’m 100% behind that. But I think you and I both know that’s not what’s being proposed.

Do you expect the Chicago Teachers Union to oppose returning to school full time this fall?

You will have to talk to them about that. If past practice tells me anything, I think that there probably will be [a fight over this] but I don’t make those decisions and so I don’t want to cast doubt.

I think that parents want their kids back in school. I think what’s important to them is to know that that’s going to be done safely. We’ve been extremely careful this year with returning to in- person instruction. So that’s what CPS is focused on.

Why did you say you won’t run another school district after leaving CPS?

Chicago is the best. If I have had an opportunity to run Chicago Public Schools, why would you go and do it somewhere else? We are a leader in so many ways. I’ve talked about academic progress, the way that we are bold in how we look at student performance and are unapologetic about pushing for our kids to have opportunities to go on after high school.

I think I have a lot to offer to help other school districts that are wrestling with some of these problems. But if I wanted to lead a school system, I would have stayed here in CPS, a place where I have overwhelming support, deep love and the runway to do the work.

I’ve heard you mention how proud you are of opening the new high school in Englewood and Bronzeville Classical Elementary School on the South Side. Can you talk about that and how that plays into equity?

I think Englewood is an example of how I wanted to address the portfolio issues and the enrollment issues that we’re facing as a district, paying close attention to things that have happened in the past that were unfair to communities and that people didn’t respond favorably to. I listened to those lessons and tried to do two things. One, solve a problem that the district has a responsibility to solve, which is severe under-enrollment in certain communities in many schools. But [two], I wanted to make sure that we replaced it with an institution that the community knew was theirs and could be proud of and so I count [the opening of] Englewood STEM High School as one of my greatest accomplishments. In this role, and I think it’s a blueprint for how the district, and how the city can go about addressing the issues around under enrollment.

Enrollment has been dropping dramatically, especially this year, and CPS now has 103 schools with fewer than 250 students. How much of a problem do you think that is?

I think it’s a huge problem. Declining enrollment is the biggest threat to the school system and the biggest risk to the school system.

Where we haven’t been able to move forward is to really get communities en mass to stand up and say, ‘this is how we think that problems should be solved,’ and really be in agreement with taking schools offline and replacing them with other options. I will say though, we’ve made a lot of progress in North Lawndale. There is a group, a large group of community members, who have identified this issue. They believe that they have a plan to solve the issue, and the district supports the direction that they are going in.

Did you ever get any pushback from the mayor or her supporters saying that CPS wasn’t doing enough to support white middle-class families that she might need come election time, or internally from people who were used to the way things had been done for decades?

No, I think it was received in a very positive way across the board. I would have wanted to see us do more and see that pace quicken in some cases, but there are constraints due to financial limitations and other things. But I’ve been proud of the boldness that I have acted with and that I have had the latitude to to act with.

One example was just as recent as last week. Selective enrollment access is a huge issue. We worked directly with the selective enrollment schools and their teams to double the number of students with disabilities that were offered seats at selective enrollment schools. And so I think the next CEO, along with those school principals, should have similar conversations around how to increase access for African American, and Latinx students in those schools.The same lessons that we learned, the same resources that we put in place to support students with disabilities, we need to be thinking about doing that as well to see more African American and Latinx students in selective enrollment schools, especially the top five.

Do you think that CPS should use some of the $1.8 billion it’s getting in federal COVID-19 relief dollars to pay down debt?

We will be presenting our plan and you’ll hear that in the coming weeks.

I wish I could be a principal during this time because our schools are going to have more resources than they’ve ever had in recent memory. If you look at my time and tenure here, people will tell you I have no problem spending money on education, spending money on what happens directly in school, specifically in the classroom.

What’s the single biggest change you’ve seen in your 22 years working in the district (really 40 years, including your time as a student)?

The thing that I cherish the most is that I truly believe that the quality of education that students receive is far better than it was 30 years ago. I know that based on my own experiences and based on obviously the data. Even qualitatively, talking to parents during the pandemic, so many of them remarked on the fact that they couldn’t believe that we were introducing material, and books and different activities to students. That wasn’t the experience that we had growing up. I’ve been incredibly proud of that.

I’ve also been proud of the college-going culture that we’ve created in CPS, again drawn on my own experiences. I remember [when I was a CPS high schooler] that someone told me to come to take the ACT on a Saturday. I don’t know how I was selected. I don’t know who decided I was college bound, and decided that maybe the person next to me wasn’t. But that’s no longer the district that we’re in anymore. We have so many programs in place that allow access for all students. We believe that all of our students should graduate and be prepared to go to college. They’ll make their own decision about their pathway, but it’s our job to make sure that they’re prepared to go to college. I think those are the two things that have changed the most for the better, that I’m proud of.

How would you like to see the school rating system change to respond to criticism that it’s too test reliant and doesn’t fully capture what schools have to offer?

Our rating system is a model for so many districts across the country. It speaks to that boldness where we are not afraid to talk about what’s working and what’s not working in our schools. I reject the criticism around the importance of test scores. The people who say that out loud, don’t agree with that in practice. They are still the ones putting their kids in the highest-performing schools. They’re still looking at the data to see how schools are performing before they make a decision. So if that is good enough for kids with access and privilege, that should be good enough for kids who don’t have that same level of access and privilege.

I will say that there are opportunities to provide more context, so things like teacher tenure or principal tenure [are included]. If you’re in a school where there’s a lot of turnover, you’re going to see that impact performance. Also, making sure that there’s more visibility around school funding and performance. That data exists, so putting it all in one place so parents can see it is a step in the right direction for CPS.

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