A NEW DIRECTION: Dr. Janice K. Jackson, left, said that she'll confront the issue of school closings from a neighborhood-specific perspective. | Courtesy CPS

During a phone interview last week, Dr. Janice K. Jackson — the current interim CEO of Chicago Public Schools who is expected to be appointed to the position permanently later this month — shared her ambitions and goals for the district, among other thoughts. 

Jackson was chief education officer for CPS before assuming the top post. Below are excerpts from that talk.

AWN: Do you feel some anxiety about coming into this position considering what’s happened to your predecessors? 

(Forrest Claypool resigned after controversy resulting from an ethics violation and Barbara Byrd-Bennett was sentenced to four years in federal prison for her role in a kickback scheme)

JKJ: Anxiety wouldn’t be the right word. Obviously, it’s a huge job, but it’s something I’ve worked for my whole career. As a teacher, a principal, and district leader, this is a role I’ve sought. And the community has looked for someone with an education background. 

AWN: What are some of your top priorities coming into the position? 

JKJ: A few things stand out. My primary goal is always to improve the academic performance of the district. CPS is on the rise, with record high graduation rates, record high rates across the board on every single metric we measure — from test scores to college enrollment.

We have to ensure that kids are getting a positive, high quality education in all of our schools across the city. New programming and new school opportunities need to exist so that communities improve around these schools. 

The other challenge is to make sure we continue to have a successful school year. This has been a relatively calm year compared to other years. There’s more certainty, so we want to make sure our students and families continue to feel that level of certainty. 

The state’s new funding mechanism is one source of that certainty. At the beginning of this year, we got a $450 million infusion of cash due to changes in the funding formula, so our schools won’t be subject to midyear cuts, furlough days and a reduction in professional development days. 

AWN: What will your relationship be like with the Chicago Teachers Union? 

JKJ:  I have a great relationship with the union and I think we agree on what matters most, which is that students get the high quality schools they deserve. We disagree from time to time on how to get there, but I’ll maintain better communication with the union because that’s what parents expect. 

AWN: You’re aware of the Chicago Reporter article, which discovered that, in the last decade, CPS has lost more than 52,000 black students — many of them to schools in the suburbs and places in northwest Indiana, like Gary, which are basically poor and predominantly African American. What is CPS trying to do to stanch the outflow of these students and families? 

Jackson: We noticed that phenomenon in the district even prior to that article. I approach that problem from that standpoint of an educator. People transition for a number of reasons, but if we created high quality options, people will be less likely to transition. You can build a great community around a school. Part of my role is to make sure there are good opportunities so that people won’t want to leave CPS or Chicago. 

AWN: Chicago Reader columnist Ben Joravsky, in a Dec. 13, 2017 article, described you as the “new public face of Rahm Emanuel’s school closing policies.” He writes basically that having a CPS leader of color in the position would make it easier for the mayor to close schools and divert property taxes from the district to a near north side TIF district to help lure Amazon. How do you respond to that kind of criticism? 

JKJ:  I don’t think responding directly to that sort of commentary is helpful? You can talk to people throughout the city, of all backgrounds about what a quality school looks like. I approach this from a quality standpoint. Just because I’m black doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion about what a quality school looks like.

 There are times to close schools and there are times to reinvest. I don’t play race politics. I’m not a politician. With me, it’s always about quality education. We have to be able to look parents in the face and tell them that their kids are getting a quality education in their schools. 

Parents and students are leaving communities, they’re voting with their feet. It’s my job as CEO to do something about this. My approach will be specific to the neighborhood. 

AWN: What are your thoughts on the possibility of the city replacing the school board model, whose members are appointed by the mayor, with an elected school board?

JKJ:  CPS is very different than it was 30 years ago, when [former U.S. Education Secretary William John Bennett] said that this was the worst district in the country. I was attending CPS when he made that comment. This district has improved dramatically since then [and] it improved under mayoral control and under an appointed school board.

When we debate the merits of an elected vs. an appointed board, we have to ask whether or not we can make this transition while maintaining stability and preventing the distractions that other districts are plagued with when elections come around. School districts are already politicized enough. [And an elected school board] would create more politicization and I’m not comfortable with that. 

AWN: The Chicago Sun-Times pointed out that “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.” 

Talk a bit about your time growing up in CPS. 

JKJ: My experience as a student was very positive. I came from a family where all of my siblings did well in school. My teachers knew what they were getting with Jackson students. We were afforded every opportunity you can imagine. 

I didn’t realize until I became a teacher that I benefitted from a two-tiered system that people complain about so much in CPS. There’s a perception that the district works for some people and not for everyone else. 

One of the things that motivates me is providing those opportunities for kids who don’t always get them. When I make decisions, I’m always thinking about bridging that opportunity gap. 

I went to neighborhood schools and I know there are smart kids everywhere — they’re equally distributed throughout the city, but the opportunity is not. I hope that when my time in this position is done, people will say that I created more opportunity for students throughout the city.

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com