Janice Jackson is leaving her post as chief executive of Chicago Public Schools after three years and at a critical juncture for the nation’s third-largest school system — not only as it begins its recovery from an unprecedented disruption to education with the majority of students still learning remotely, but also as two other top leaders are set to leave.
“While I feel there is still more work to be done in CPS, I also believe it is time to pass the torch to new leadership for the next chapter,” Jackson wrote in a letter to CPS families announcing her departure Monday.
“When I began this journey, I made a commitment to lead with integrity, courage, and excellence while bringing much needed stability to the district. I have delivered on that promise and will continue to advocate for the children of Chicago.”
At an afternoon news conference in which Jackson teared up at times, she said she is “both proud and humbled and also a little bit tired if I’m being honest.” The top job at CPS “was and still is my dream job,” she said, “but then you wake up.”
Jackson said she has no interest in running for office — other than for an elected school board seat if a bill passes in Springfield, she said tongue-in-cheek — and doesn’t have immediate plans for her next job after she leaves when her contract is up in June. For now, she’s taking a fellowship with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who made clear Jackson could have stayed at CPS if she wanted, said she was “saddened” by Jackson’s decision to leave, “but I also know she always puts the most important things and values first, and that’s her family. And I understand this decision and I support it.”
The mayor, who inherited Jackson as schools chief from ex-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said Jackson’s “fearless leadership has been beyond invaluable” in their two years together.
Even so, Lightfoot said there was plenty of work still to be done in a district that has deep racial and socioeconomic inequities, and a nationwide search for Jackson’s replacement is underway. With many families and educators likely dreading an outsider coming in to lead the district, Lightfoot said knowledge of CPS is important but indicated it wasn’t necessarily a requirement.
“We will be drawing upon a deep wealth of talented, proven leaders,” the mayor said. “And I am confident that we will find the next great leader for CPS.”
Two other top officials on their way out
Finding a new CEO is a tall enough task when the rest of the leadership team is in place. But Lightfoot — and the eventual new schools chief — will have more positions to fill.
Chief Operating Officer Arnie Rivera is also set to leave the district, and LaTanya McDade, the district’s education chief, had already announced in March she was quitting to lead Virginia’s second-largest school district. Rivera and McDade effectively were the district’s second- and third-leading officials.
Asked if she was worried the three departures would leave a leadership void at a challenging time for CPS, Lightfoot said she was confident Jackson, McDade and Rivera had built strong teams that could withstand the changes and carry on their work. She added candidates for the CEO position will be asked who they’d bring in to replace McDade and Rivera.
Other major school systems have had similar turnover since the start of the pandemic — including in New York City, Los Angeles and Houston — amidst difficult circumstances.
Jackson, 43, is a CPS graduate who taught for five years at South Shore High School before becoming the founding principal of the Al Raby School for Community and Environment and later the principal at Westinghouse College Prep. She also served as a network chief overseeing a region of schools, then became the district’s education chief.
When she was appointed to the CEO role in January 2018 by Emanuel, she became the first alumna who also taught in the district to become its chief executive. She was preceded by years of leaders who had largely not been educators and was seen by city officials as a breath of fresh air who intimately understood the system and could bring about needed stability.
A parent of two CPS students, she has overseen improvements in math and reading scores and graduation rates. The district is also in significantly better financial position than when she took over.
But she’s also seen her share of trouble in her time at CPS’ central office, including massive sex abuse and special education scandals that prompted federal and state oversight of the district.
Jackson was also at the helm during the longest teachers strike in three decades in 2019 and almost another when she tried to reopen schools during the pandemic without the approval of the Chicago Teachers Union. In February, the union’s House of Delegates issued no-confidence votes in Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS leadership.
Jackson’s name had been floated as a potential pick for U.S. education secretary in the Biden administration.
Multiple factors led to departure
When asked in March how long she’d stick around at CPS, Jackson said she didn’t “have a timeline on anything.”
“I’m here for the district, and as long as I’m here, I’m going to continue to do what I think is an exceptional job for the kids here in CPS,” Jackson told the Sun-Times in an interview. “I’m worn out like everyone else. It’s a pandemic, I’m not superwoman. I’m not going to sit here and act like I’m not impacted. I want my kids in school, I’m trying to do three different jobs like everybody else. But I know what I signed up for.”
Asked Monday when she started to consider leaving the district, Jackson said she first let Lightfoot know “a few months ago that this was something I was thinking about.”
Several major factors contributed to Jackson’s decision to call it quits, according to four sources close to her.
Chief among them was the increasingly contentious relationship between City Hall and the CTU, and Lightfoot’s meddling in negotiations over the 2019 contract and reopening this year which resulted in the union getting nearly everything it wanted despite the mayor’s tough talk, sources said. The pandemic’s impact on the system and all the additional stress that came with it also played a role.
Jackson said she has a “great relationship” with Lightfoot and considers the mayor a friend. She said Lightfoot doesn’t get enough credit for her work overseeing CPS. But Jackson said she was “hopeful that a new leader coming in can” fix the district’s relationship with CTU.
“If I’m being honest ... I don’t think you can count one single time where any nasty comment or any name-calling came from me related to CTU,” Jackson said. “I respect teachers. I am a teacher.
“Right now, the politics in education are ugly. I think they’re misplaced,” she said of the increasingly aggressive teachers union.
Other contributing factors were recent education losses suffered by the mayor in Springfield — giving the CTU more negotiating power — and the prospect for more through an elected school board and the departure of McDade, Jackson’s right-hand.
Well aware that Jackson’s tenure was winding down, McDade could have stayed because she would have been the natural choice to become the next CEO. But McDade chose to leave for a top job in Virginia because she didn’t want to stick around under those same circumstances, sources said.
The CTU, declining to take a parting shot at Jackson, said in a statement that the loss of the three leaders “cannot be a deterrent to addressing the needs of our school communities, which have been exacerbated in this pandemic.”
“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 union said, wishing the departing leaders “the best in their future endeavors.”
Troy LaRaviere, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, said the district’s “misguided approach to management” over the past decade, regardless of the CEO, has caused instability. Jackson continued the tradition of failing to properly take input on district decisions, most recently in school reopening planning when principals had little say in policies they were expected to implement, he said.
“These kinds of backward practices have dominated the culture of CPS, and our current CEO was just the latest to rely on this ill-considered management style,” LaRaviere wrote in a statement.
‘Huge loss’ for CPS
Emanuel chose Jackson after the federal corruption scandal that culminated in the conviction of former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett and the ethics scandal that claimed Bennett’s successor, Forrest Claypool. Emanuel’s first Schools CEO Jean Claude Brizard also had an abbreviated tenure.
But Emanuel said Monday he struck gold with Jackson, whom he met when she was still a principal at Westinghouse.
“I think the world of her passion for children and educational excellence. I think the world of her commitment and her willingness to dedicate her life to other children,” Emanuel said in an interview.
“She was grounded with great values, a great sense of the potential of the school system and was never willing to take no for an answer. … It didn’t matter your ZIP code, your block or your school — every child had the potential to learn and every school had the potential to be a school of excellence.”
The former mayor said it is “not an accident that, every year Janice and LaTanya were in leadership,” CPS “hit record-highs in school graduation, college acceptance and attendance and continued the growth in our reading and math scores.”
Jim Franczek, the city’s longtime chief negotiator, said Jackson will be tough to replace.
“Janice Jackson has been one of the best, if not the best CEO in the history of the Chicago Public Schools and has been a spectacular contributor in making the school system better. No one has worked harder or made a deeper commitment than Janice Jackson,” Franczek said.
Franczek said coupled with McDade’s exit, Jackson’s departure is a double-blow for CPS.
“They were exceedingly close. The fact that you had two incredibly gifted, hard-working, Chicago CPS-DNA-in-their-blood [top executives] at the same time was, unquestionably, the best leadership team in the history of Chicago Public Schools,” Franczek said.
“When you lose a leader of the magnitude of Janice Jackson, you can expect there’s gonna be ripple effects. She grew up in the Chicago Public School System. She’s held almost every position in the system you can have. That’s the only superintendent/CEO who can say that. I’m sure she’s thought about how to handle that.”
Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, called Jackson’s departure a “huge loss” for a school system still reeling from a year of remote learning and the teachers strike.
“She’s been a student at Chicago Public Schools, a teacher, an administrator, a network chief, chief education officer and then, CEO. She literally has done any and everything there is to be done at CPS. She’s also a parent. She knows every aspect of student engagement, community engagement, education, facilities that anyone can know about CPS,” Scott said.
“She’s done a magnificent job of righting the ship and turning CPS in a direction that’s better than it was when she got there.”
Scott said he doesn’t want to speculate about why Jackson decided that five years was enough. But he’s not at all surprised.
“In this day and age — with COVID, the really public battles she’s had with CTU — she just may be tired. It may be time for her to step away,” the chairman said.