Mayor Lori Lightfoot has named former Elgin schools superintendent José Torres as the interim CEO for Chicago Public Schools, tasking him with leading the nation’s third-largest district through a summer many hope will launch the system into better shape than it entered the pandemic.
“We are grateful and lucky to have someone of his depth and experience to be serving as interim CEO,” Lightfoot said in a Monday afternoon news conference at Richardson Middle School alongside Board of Education President Miguel del Valle and outgoing CEO Janice Jackson.
“Overseeing a school system as large, complex and diverse as CPS requires an immense amount of skill and expertise under normal circumstances. But nothing about this pandemic time that we are in has been normal, and we still have hard work to do in front of us to support our children who’ve been particularly impacted by COVID.”
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The mayor also tapped CPS equity chief Maurice Swinney as the interim chief education officer to replace the departing LaTanya McDade. Swinney previously spent six years as a CPS principal before he was elevated to lead the district’s then newly created equity office in October 2018, where he has overseen budgets and policies to help address the inequitable allocation of resources.
Torres served as a regional superintendent at CPS from 2006 to 2008 before he took the top job at Elgin’s School District U-46, the second-largest system in the state with about 40,000 students — nearly 10 times fewer than CPS. He worked in Elgin until 2014, then spent the past seven years as president of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora.
Torres has led IMSA “with quiet strength and resolve, realistic optimism and a commitment to helping our students, parents and staff, including faculty, deal with fear and accept change,” said Erin Roche, Chair of the IMSA Board of Trustees, when Torres left his position there last month.
Torres had been retired for two days when he got a call from Jackson to gauge his interest in stepping into the interim role. Lightfoot said Torres will not be a candidate for the permanent job. That nationwide search is ongoing, and the mayor said she expects to be presented with finalists by the end of July and make a hire by the start of August, which she acknowledged was an “aggressive timeline.” CPS this year moved up the start of its school year to the Monday before Labor Day, leaving little time for the new leader to get in and acclimated.
During a pivotal summer for CPS’ recovery from the pandemic, Torres said his top priorities are working with parents and teachers to ensure students are back in classrooms full-time next fall, reconnecting with families who weren’t well-engaged in learning the past year and providing opportunities for children to learn and grow over the summer.
Those will all be challenges, with only about one in five students choosing to return to classrooms this spring and 11% of students absent from virtual and in-person classes altogether.
“I want to make sure we don’t waste a single minute this summer,” Torres said. “We have a plethora of opportunities for learning and for students, so we want to make sure they have an opportunity to come back and to get ready for the fall.”
Jackson said her team has already put together an educational recovery plan to address what she called “unfinished learning,” but that hasn’t yet been released despite an expectation it would be before she leaves the district at the end of June.
Torres is now expected to have a say in that plan that will use a large chunk of the $1.8 billion worth of federal relief funding CPS has at its disposal.
“I’ll be looking to see if there are any gaps that I might be able to see just because, being from the outside, I have fresh eyes,” Torres said. “Are we taking care of social emotional needs of both younger and older students?”
The district’s recovery should take into account that, while academics were impacted, children were still learning the past year and in some cases learned things they otherwise wouldn’t have in their normal curriculum, Torres said.
“Children were learning a lot of stuff, we just don’t measure those things,” he said. “We’ve got to catch up and tie the things that they’re learning with some of the academic skills and development that they need.”