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The unfinished legacy of outgoing CPS CEO Janice Jackson

Jackson is proud of her accomplishments, and says to critics who say she could have done more: ‘If I could deal with hundreds of years of racism and a century of disinvestment in Black and Brown communities in Chicago in four years or seven years, then I’m Jesus Christ.’

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announces she will not be renewing her contract as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools at a City Hall news conference, Monday, May 3, 2021.
Janice Jackson announces she will not renew her contract as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools at a City Hall news conference, Monday, May 3, 2021.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Janice Jackson took the helm of the Chicago Public Schools at a time when it was, again, a mess.

Her three predecessors had been pushed out, the latest in scandal, the one before him imprisoned. As an educator who’d worked her way up through her hometown school district, Jackson was tasked with stabilizing and restoring the public’s confidence in the country’s third-largest schools system.

Armed uniquely with a history they sorely lacked — experience and valuable relationships as a former CPS student, teacher, principal and administrator plus parent of students — Jackson shored up budgets, developed a five-year plan and promoted talent from within to assemble an uber-diverse leadership team loaded with CPS teachers. Principals halted their exodus.

A graduate of neighborhood schools, Jackson held up equity as her guiding light, promising better outcomes for the Black and Brown students who form the backbone of CPS. She was a homegrown educator, exactly what the powerful Chicago Teachers Union long had lobbied for.

Yet the tenure of the sixth CPS CEO in a decade was marked from the start by messes that had predated her: special education cuts, privatized services, mishandled sexual abuse complaints. Then a strike — prompted by a larger fight between the CTU and the new mayor the union hadn’t backed — interrupted the start of the school year later mutated by coronavirus.

Jackson began to solve some of those problems, though critics say she ignored others, and now, she leaves some of her intended work unfinished.

Jackson, 43, steps aside amid the tumult of a global pandemic — with the vast majority of CPS’ 355,000 students still learning remotely as normalcy everywhere gave way. Clearly COVID-19 challenges hastened her departure, technically at the end of her contract, and her leaving — along with the resignation of her two top cabinet members — still feels to many premature.

“I’ve been around long enough to know I don’t get to write my own legacy, so it’ll be based on what people think, and more importantly what they feel as a result of my leadership,” Jackson said in an interview this week.

“I want people to know that even with all of that happening, I still steered the ship and moved it in the right direction.”

Jackson: Equity tops my accomplishments

Jackson constantly referred to her own childhood in CPS and the inequities she saw when she unveiled new programs aimed at making sure every student had a fair shot at CPS’ best offerings, regardless of income. When Jackson lists her accomplishments as CEO, she starts with equity.

For most families, the most visible example of widening access was GoCPS, an application that streamlined admissions to every special school program offered, whether run by district staffers or by privately managed charter school operators. The software also sought to make sure schools were accepting kids fairly, too, and resulted in more Black and special education students gaining admission this year to competitive test-in high schools.

Behind the scenes, Jackson created an equity chief position to ensure decisions systemwide accounted for racial and economic disparities, empowering the new official to sign off on school and capital budgets.

She commissioned an annual regional analysis, using data to help determine which neighborhoods and schools would receive extra investments — STEM or language programs, for example.

While not perfect, that report “prompted $50 million in investments in schools that wouldn’t be there, had there not been the data,” said Daniel Anello, head of Kids First, a business-supported non-profit organization that volunteered to assemble the report. “It’s a marker of her approach in terms of, ‘Here’s the information we need to look at, and love it or hate it, it gives us a set of facts’.”

Plans for a new high school in the gentrified West Loop got shelved. Historically Black Bronzeville opened a new classical-model grade school, and Englewood built a new STEM-focused neighborhood high school — in exchange for closing four old ones.

Jackson also took a shot at fixing equity concerns with CPS’ funding formula that gives schools money based on the number of students enrolled — and conversely takes cash away when students leave. That caused a vicious cycle of disinvestment and enrollment drops and forced schools to cut staff and programs in Black communities which faced massive population loss. Jackson established “equity grants” for schools losing enrollment; next year’s budget expands the grants to schools facing the greatest hardship.

Plenty of critics dismiss Jackson’s equity work as surface level and not cutting deep enough into long-standing injustices. CTU President Jesse Sharkey said he genuinely believes Jackson wanted to build toward a more equitable system, but he faulted her for a lack of creativity.

“I think there’s a social dynamic to [addressing systemic inequities], which was outside the comfort zone of this administration, which had a sort of racial-equity-through-test-score-competition and academic-performance kind of mindset,” Sharkey said.

Jackson argued change takes time.

“That’s like expecting Barack Obama to cure racism when he became president,” Jackson said. “If I could deal with hundreds of years of racism and a century of disinvestment in Black and Brown communities in Chicago in four years or seven years, then I’m Jesus Christ, or give me a statue. That’s not realistic.”

Since Jackson was named chief education officer in 2015, CPS’ academic trends have continued to rise, prompting her to adopt a #CPSOnTheRise hashtag. Graduation rates and earned advanced placement credits kept climbing, while high school dropouts, suspensions and expulsions continued downward, particularly for Black students who have been hurt most by inequitable systems.

Amid student protests and at least one girl harmed by an officer, police still remain in schools, however, arresting a disproportionate number of Black students, although the number of police calls to schools has dropped significantly since 2015. When students demanded the removal of police from high schools last summer — a decision Jackson and the mayor passed onto individual schools — many said they felt ignored by their leaders.

Students were also critical of Jackson’s oversight of remote learning during the pandemic, arguing she didn’t address their mental health concerns and offered in-person learning as the only relief when they didn’t yet feel safe to return to classrooms.

Joshua Torres, 18, a graduate of Charles A. Prosser Career Academy, was the 2019-2020 honorary student board member of the Chicago Board of Education, found CPS CEO Janice Jackson to be “a very down-to-earth person. “
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

More student input, but some say voices still not heard

Some other students felt they had a greater voice with the CEO who once sat in their desks.

And lots of students, who constitute CPS’ largest group of stakeholders, heard her, said Tia Hawthorne, 16, the Board of Education’s honorary student member.

“She’s from the city and was a CPS student, and I think that’s really important in grasping what students want and need,” said Tia, a Lane Tech College Prep High School junior. “It seeped into her leadership style as well.”

While he held Tia’s position on the school board, Joshua Torres, 18, developed forums for students to meet with board members and have real conversations beyond the two minutes allotted during public participation at monthly meetings.

When she spoke with students, Jackson was “a very down-to-earth person, definitely a charismatic leader,” said Joshua, who graduated in 2020 from Prosser Career Academy High School, a neighborhood school known for vocational programs. “When I would talk to her, she would truly listen. I don’t have a doubt that she did have the students best interests at heart.”

But there remained room for more student input, Joshua said.

Rocio Almazan, a sophomore at Curie Metro High School, said at a recent parent and student town hall that families at times feel ignored.

“CPS has excluded all stakeholders since the pandemic and continues to do so,” Rocio said.

According to Jennie Biggs of Raise Your Hand, a parent group that since 2010 has trained a critical eye on CPS, “There’s been more opportunities for parents to attend meetings and find out things, maybe a slight uptick in actual engagement where parents can voice opinions, but it’s still had a feeling of decisions had already been made.”

That’s also, Biggs said, because the mayor and her appointed school board control the schools.

In this 2016 photo, Jackson — then CPS chief education officer — speaks at a press conference the day before school started at Walter Payton College Prep High School. Behind her are (from left) then CPS CEO Forrest Claypool, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Walter Burnett.
Sun-Times files

Many problems inherited

The fifth CEO appointed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in December 2017, Jackson was confronted with messes left by previous regimes.

A sex abuse abuse scandal showing how children’s complaints for years were mishandled by CPS resulted in the creation of new controls plus the transfer of investigations involving adults to CPS’ inspector general.

More problems stemming from the prior privatization of nursing and cleaning contracts also surfaced.

“They did make a commitment to hire more social workers and nurses,” according to Raise Your Hand’s Biggs. “We’ve seen another commitment for more supports at the school level for students for mental health and regular health services.”

Extra janitors also were hired to clean schools and the facilities chief was replaced after the Chicago Sun-Times documented filthy conditions in buildings. Later, outsourced services were brought back in-house.

As enrollment tanked amid a budget hole, Jackson halted CPS’ charter growth.

The CTU’s Sharkey, never one to hold back criticism, said Jackson “represented a break with the kind of head-spinning succession of CEOs.

“I think that kind of instability is not a good thing for the school system,” he said. “Her administration was a break from that, partly because, you know, a lot of people who worked in it came up from inside the schools.”

Sharkey said she started to address harmful legacies at the district such as bare-bones support staffing and huge class sizes. But he saw remnants of earlier managers in Jackson’s leadership, calling it “still an administration where unilateralism was their basic operating procedure.”

Christine Palmieri speaks to the Chicago Board of Education at a hearing in 2017.
Sun-Times files

Special Ed advocate: ‘I have no love for Jackson’

There’s debate about how much Jackson contributed to the problems in special education that led to CPS’s department being taken over by the state in 2018 for failing to provide services to the district’s most vulnerable students.

The steep cuts to the special education department and school budgets were designed by her predecessor, Forrest Claypool, and by cronies he hired for millions as consultants as CPS faced massive budget problems. Jackson was chief education officer then, head of everyone responsible for teaching and learning in schools.

“I think special ed is extremely difficult, and I do think we can do a better job as a district,” Jackson said. “It’s not that we don’t believe it’s important and we haven’t invested in it. But the problems are complex.”

Jackson pointed to the restoration of special education staffing after deep cuts by Claypool “that I didn’t agree with,” and said she could have used more time to address special education.

What dismays advocates for children with disabilities is how little since has been fixed.

The Illinois State Board of Education monitor remains in place, and the services that ISBE determined children were denied still have not been fulfilled. Families of children with disabilities have complained about missing more services during the pandemic, at least 30 department members have left CPS, and just last month, ISBE found more special education failures in the school CPS operates in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, where half the students qualify for services.

“I have no love for Jackson,” said Christine Palmieri, one of the mothers of a special education student who took complaints about CPS to ISBE. “She doesn’t respond. If there was one word to describe her, it’s inaction.

Her legacy is being a failure to students with disabilities and causing harm to tens of thousands of children.”

Many plans stalled by pandemic

Nationwide, schools leaders are stepping down, citing COVID exhaustion, including in New York and Los Angeles.

Last spring, Jackson’s team scrambled to reinvent school for students at home, amid a shortage of technology and thousands of homes without internet. This included takeout meals for children, roughly 8 of 10 of whom qualify for lunch programs, and corralling free Wi-Fi for up to 100,000 families.

Plans were rejiggered repeatedly to put as many kids as possible back into classrooms, though only 22% showed up the first week all schools reopened in mid-April. At last count, 11% are regularly absent, a figure which includes as many as 26% of Black high school students.

Citing health and safety concerns, the CTU blocked Jackson’s initial plan for a return last fall. When she and the mayor tried again, weeks of contentious negotiations almost led to another strike. The union argued its moves saved lives by keeping people out of buildings until conditions were safe.

Jackson said some of their demands weren’t relevant and unnecessarily delayed reopening.

“I think the biggest thing for me was kids being out of school as long as they were this year,” Jackson said. “If I’m being honest, I have not gotten over that and I probably never will.”

Legacy incomplete

With a few months left on Jackson’s $300,000-a-year contract, her legacy isn’t quite complete.

She has pledged to unveil plans for everyone to return in person for the entire 2021-22 school year and for a new comprehensive curriculum aimed at representing CPS’ diverse student body. But she’s leaving as cash-strapped CPS awaits perhaps its largest ever infusion of cash in pandemic relief.

“In this job, there’s always going to be unfinished business,” said Joyce Kenner, principal of Whitney Young Magnet High School. “But I think Dr. Jackson was able to put some things on track that were not on track before.

“All great leaders are able to clean up some messes. And there were a lot of messes prior to her getting that job.”

Unlike predecessors whose careers were crushed by CPS, Jackson leaves with her reputation largely intact.

Though some activists tweeted their joy at Jackson’s imminent departure, “in time, I think people are going to realize these were the years of enlightenment at CPS, these were the golden years of CPS,” said Anna Pavichevich, Amundsen High School’s principal whose career spans all nine CPS CEOs. “Where more was accomplished, where children never had better results, principals never had higher job satisfaction rates and where we as educators were never more united behind a leader.”

“My words of caution are, be careful what you ask for.”