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How Janice Jackson rose from Chicago Public Schools student to its CEO

Janice Jackson, the new Chicago Public Schools CEO, at Edwards Elementary School last year. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Throughout their time in the turbulent Chicago Public Schools, current high schoolers have attended classes in a system led by seven different chief executive officers. They’re about to get an eighth, Janice Jackson.

And, for the first time since former Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of the city’s schools in 1995, CPS has, in Jackson, a homegrown alumna who also has taught in the school system she’ll lead.

Jackson, 40, has a doctorate in education. She has been a principals’ supervisor. And she is a parent who didn’t follow the frequent path of the city’s elite, choosing to send her own daughter to a solid CPS elementary school rather than a private school.

She caught the attention of Mayor Rahm Emanuel as a foil to his fourth schools chief, Forrest Claypool, who resigned Friday and had no background in education.

Most recently, she has been chief education officer for the city’s schools. But she has spent most of her life in CPS classrooms — as a student, a social studies teacher at South Shore Community Academy High School and, from a relatively early age, a principal of schools she has founded, first at Al Raby High School on the West Side, then at Westinghouse College Prep.

UNDER FIRE: Claypool quits after inspector general’s report; Jackson takes over

‘STUPID MISTAKES’: What Forrest Claypool did that cost him CPS CEO job

THE WATCHDOGS: Report details how Claypool tried to block ethics probe

EDITORIAL: Best thing for CPS was for Claypool to leave

As the third of five kids in a working-class family, Jackson couldn’t afford to go away to college. She stayed home to attend Chicago State University, wanting to be a college professor.

But she told the “Ed Couple” podcast (produced by two Chicago school principals): “Quickly, when I became a teacher, I realized that’s where I belonged.”

At South Shore, “one of the lowest-performing schools in the state,” she told the podcast, she started thinking about taking on a leadership role. “I had an opinion that I could do it better.”

Jackson’s mentor, Steve Tozer, who heads the Urban Education Leadership doctorate program she attended at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said Friday he remembers she had an even higher goal.

“Janice did write on her admissions essay at UIC she hoped someday to lead the Chicago Public Schools,” Tozer said. “She’s embarrassed by that now because it seems naïve for her to have said that. But the reality is she has wanted to make as deep an impact on this city and this school system as she could.”

When the Chicago Board of Education next meets, in January, it plans to make Jackson’s promotion from interim CEO to the $250,000-a-year CEO job permanent.

“If the job can be done, Janice has the talent and the commitment and the learners’ stance” for it, Tozer said. “You’ll never get the impression from Janice that she has all the answers.”

At the news conference Friday announcing Claypool’s resignation and Jackson’s elevation, she wasn’t among those who spoke and didn’t respond to an interview request.

Born on the South Side at Englewood Hospital, Jackson attended Cook Elementary School in Auburn-Gresham and graduated with the class of 1995 from Hyde Park High School, records show. She went straight to Chicago State, finishing in December 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in history and secondary education.

While working as a cashier at an Express clothing store, she landed the teaching job at South Shore.

She continued at CSU to get a master’s in history, then started planning what would become Al Raby High School in 2004. Jackson has said she intended to help design the school and then find a strong principal to lead it. But the West Side community was impressed and wanted her to take over. At 27, she did. The school had one of the city’s lowest dropout rates.

Meanwhile, Jackson enrolled at UIC, earning another master’s of education — in leadership and administration — on her way to the doctorate she’d complete in 2010. While working on her doctorate, Jackson, who is married to Torrence Price and lives in Bronzeville, had their daughter, now 8.

Then-CPS CEO Arne Duncan tapped her to start Westinghouse.

She helps develop leaders, rather than followers, Tozer said.

Jackson might find dealing with the Chicago Teachers Union less contentious than Claypool did. Claypool was scarcely involved in the last round of negotiations with the union. As a strike deadline neared, Jackson helped seal a deal and stood, smiling, by union leaders as they announced details.

Janice Jackson (right) stands with Karen Lewis (at podium) and other Chicago Teachers Unions leaders at October 2016 news conference announcing teachers’ contract. | Andy Grimm / Sun-Times files
Janice Jackson (right) stands with Karen Lewis (at podium) and other Chicago Teachers Unions leaders at October 2016 news conference announcing teachers’ contract. | Andy Grimm / Sun-Times files

“We finally got someone for the first time in 20 years who can claim to be a Chicago educator, legitimately claim it, know how the inside of a school really works,” said Jesse Sharkey, the union’s vice president. “We hope that she listens.”

She has since run up against the CTU and supporters of the National Teachers Academy elementary school in the South Loop, which she wants to turn into a new high school, saying NTA’s mostly African-American students deserve to be in the more integrated South Loop Elementary.