What Lies Ahead For Chicago Public Schools’ New Top Leader

Pedro Martinez served as superintendent of a San Antonio school district, where he's pictured here in 2019, before returning to Chicago to become the schools CEO. Courtesy of San Antonio Independent School District
Pedro Martinez served as superintendent of a San Antonio school district, where he's pictured here in 2019, before returning to Chicago to become the schools CEO. Courtesy of San Antonio Independent School District

What Lies Ahead For Chicago Public Schools’ New Top Leader

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Pedro Martinez returns on Wednesday to run a different Chicago Public Schools system than the one he left a dozen years ago when he was the chief financial officer.

He is coming back to a higher performing school system with more bright spots than the one he left. However, the school system is also grappling with plunging enrollment, a thin leadership bench and a dysfunctional relationship between the mayor and the teachers union.

The good news for the new CEO is that CPS is relatively financially stable, at least in the short term. The school district received more than $2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money to be spent over three years. So far, it only allocated about $500 million. Gov. JB Pritzker also has prioritized putting money into public schools.

CPS is also graduating more students and sending more of them to college. When Martinez left, just 54.5% of students were graduating and about 57% of graduates were going to two- or four-year colleges. Last year, 82.5% of students graduated and, the most recent data from 2019, about 70% of graduates went to college.

His predecessor also made progress in other key areas. Former CPS CEO Janice Jackson and Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade made equity a focus. They sent extra money to schools serving poor students. They also gave schools the opportunity to apply for specialities, such as dual language or International Baccalaureate programs. In the past, the mayor and school leaders picked which schools got these special programs without any indication as to how or why they were chosen.

Jackson and McDade also developed curriculum for every grade and every subject that they touted as a first for the district. Jackson invested $135 million on this initiative. Provided it is as good as CPS says it is, and continues to be promoted, it could serve as a blueprint for elevating learning.

Still, there are many pressing issues Martinez will confront starting on his very first day on the job. The Chicago native starts on Wednesday, fresh off his last job as superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District. Here are just a few of the challenges he’ll confront.

Getting on top of COVID-19 safety

Chicago Public Schools was not prepared to deliver its promised COVID-19 safety measures when classes began on Aug. 30.

It did not have enough contact tracers and its voluntary COVID testing program was not in place. The lack of tracers delayed notifications to parents of COVID cases, while some also worry the virus can spread without regular testing. Some parents and teachers are calling it a disastrous start to the school year. Even Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who controls the school district, has said she is “deeply disappointed” in the rollout of testing and contact tracing.

At the same time, confirmed cases of COVID-19 are increasing and thousands of students each week are having to quarantine.

Task No. 1 for Martinez will be to fix the problems and build more confidence among parents and staff. In San Antonio, Martinez went to the mat on COVID safety. He defied the Texas governor by requiring masks and mandating staff vaccinations. He also demanded schools be open for in-person instruction, which he said was contrary to the wishes of the teachers union.

In Chicago, he will find a wholly different environment where masks and vaccine mandates are much more accepted. But he will have to deal with a huge bureaucracy, a complicated procurement process and the teachers union.

Furthermore, he will have to decide whether to respond to demands from parents to provide a remote option to more students. Right now, the school system only provides one for a limited number of medically fragile students. However, the state school code allows any district to offer a remote option based on student learning needs.

Finally, there is the vaccine question. Older students are already eligible for vaccinations and younger ones will soon be eligible. Martinez has said getting students vaccinated is a priority. “There’s only one solution for us to help manage this pandemic and it is vaccines and so I’m excited to partner with the mayor, with our department of health,’” he said when he was announced as CPS’ CEO.

Working with the CTU, the mayor and the school board

Few people would disagree that the Chicago Teachers Union and the mayor have a toxic relationship.

The mayor has taken to suggesting that all criticism leveled against her originates with the union. Last week, for example, she accused union members of “lobbing bombs from the cheap seats.”

At the same time, the Chicago Teachers Union welcomed Martinez by saying that in order to get along with them, he will have to break ties with the mayor. Be “an independent thinker, a far better partner and collaborator than Mayor Lightfoot, and work with stakeholders to keep them safe, earn their trust and meet high expectations,” the union urged Martinez on the day his appointment was announced.

In San Antonio, Martinez had a tough relationship with the teachers union. He attributes that to his push for in-person learning during the pandemic and has said he will not compromise on keeping school open for students. But the union president in San Antonio, Alejandra Lopez, said he angered them even before the pandemic by taking a top-down approach and not listening to communities when it came to fixing struggling schools.

Martinez said he got along well with San Antonio’s elected school board. But in Chicago it might not be so easy. While the board is appointed by the mayor, it includes some progressives and community organizers who don’t necessarily always agree with the mayor. Martinez has gone out of his way to praise Lightfoot, his new boss, saying alignment with the mayor is essential to successfully running a school district.

Martinez has acknowledged that navigating all these relationships will be a difficult task. In an interview with The New York Times he said, “I am not naive.” But if he can somehow manage all these relationships, he can set the school system on a much more stable footing.

Managing a dwindling student population

Since Martinez left Chicago Public Schools in 2009, enrollment has dropped by some 80,000 students. This has hit neighborhood high schools particularly hard, leaving some with very few students. At the same time, the school district changed how it funds schools so they get a set amount per student, leaving low enrollment schools with limited budgets. The end result: schools with few students in huge buildings that can’t afford robust programming.

Manley High School in West Garfield Park is one of 10 very small high schools that serve as an example. It has 65 students in a building that could hold 1,500. And there are another 70 elementary schools with less than 250 students in buildings designed for far more children. Most of these tiny schools also are not performing well. Some 32% are among the district’s lowest-rated schools, according to the most recent data from two years ago.

Martinez has limited options for dealing with low enrollment schools. A new state law prohibits him from closing schools, like his predecessors could. And studies have shown that closing schools isn’t good for the students that are displaced, nor for the communities that are left with big vacant decaying buildings.

Given this, advocates are encouraging Martinez to think creatively about these small schools. Instead of forcing them to use a structure designed for a much larger student population, can they reorganize their staff and structure to create well-functioning small schools that are efficient and can provide a quality education? Advocates have also long called for school buildings to serve the community and perhaps bring in some income for the school district. Health centers, community organizations, even something like a bank, could potentially rent space.

Improving special education

When Janice Jackson stepped down as CEO, she told the Chicago Sun-Times she should have worked to improve special education more than she did. Indeed, the school district’s special education department, which provides services to more than 50,000 students with disabilities, has been challenged for years.

When Jackson assumed the CEO post in 2018, the school district was under a state investigation for secretly cutting special education services. That overhaul was deemed illegal and the school district eventually was put under a state monitor and ordered to compensate students who were harmed. Jackson responded by pouring more money into special education. More than $100 million more is being spent on diverse learner supports and services than in 2018 and there are 700 more positions.

Yet many parents and advocates continue to complain that the positions often remain unfilled and that mismanagement results in students not getting services. Most students hurt by the illegal overhaul have not gotten any extra support. The school district recently announced it will give their families money, rather than services. Also, students in special education, most of whom have learning disabilities, are much less likely to be performing at grade level or graduate, according to the latest state tests and CPS data.

Martinez said he is committed to improving special education. He said he wants to make sure that students are “getting all the services they deserve.” He also said it is important to him to look at achievement gaps and to understand the impact they have on Black and Latino boys.

“I want to first understand and listen, and I want parents at the table, I want our staff at the table and then all of us working together to solve those issues,” he said.

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