By TONIA HILL
Dr. Janice Jackson, former Chicago Public Schools Chief Education Officer, assumed her new role as interim CEO of the district last month.
Earlier this month, Jackson spoke to the Herald and laid out her vision for the district over the remainder of the school year, how she will go about restoring trust within the community and discussed the building conditions at Kenwood Academy High School.
“My primary goal is to accelerate the academic progress that the district is experiencing,” Jackson said. “Chicago Public Schools is on the rise and one of the strongest public school systems in the country.”
Jackson said, “[We have] record high graduation rates and test scores. CPS is moving in the right direction and continuing that is critically important for me.”
The district saw a 4-point gain in the graduation rate, last year, 77.5 percent of students earned a diploma. Since 2011, the graduation rate has grown more than 3.6 points on average that is triple that of the national rate of improvement, according to CPS.
Last summer, CPS announced that more 60 percent of elementary school students were reading at or above the national average. Also, more than 55 percent of elementary school students were beating the national average in math.
There are high hopes for Jackson, who has worked in every level of the district from teacher, to principal, to leading Network 9, one of the district’s 13 school zones, which includes schools within the Hyde Park, Bronzeville, and Woodlawn neighborhoods. In total the network represents 26 schools and serves 14,000 students.
In this capacity, she provided principals with supervision and guidance on strengthening students’ academic foundations.
She is a Chicago Public Schools graduate. She attended Cook Elementary School, in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood in 1995 she graduated from Hyde Park Academy High School. Jackson is also a CPS parent, her 8-year-old daughter and 12-year-old stepson attend Skinner West Elementary School on the near west side.
Jackson holds a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and a master’s degree in history from Chicago State University and a master’s degree in leadership and administration and a Ph.D. in education policy studies and urban school leadership from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Some feel that her connections to CPS as a former student, teacher, and parent are a welcome change in leadership for the Board of Education. This is the first time in two decades that a former CPS teacher will lead the board.
Leadership at the top has also had quite the shakeup, Jackson will be the eighth school superintendent in the last decade.
“I think my background as a stakeholder in CPS in every possible way gives people the confidence that stability will exist,” said Jackson during a phone interview earlier this month. Though, the district has experienced its share of issues Jackson added that this year has been a bit calmer citing additional funding from the state.
“We’re on the right track everything isn’t perfect. In a perfect world I would love to have more money to do all sorts of things,” Jackson said. “We’re not in the situation that we were in years ago.”
This year, Jackson plans to release school budgets to principals in the spring.
“The past few years they got their budget much later, which I can tell you as a former principal puts you at a disadvantage and so schools will know early on how much funding they are getting for next year,” Jackson said.
While some are optimistic about Jackson’s role as head of the district, there are some who are concerned that she will do the biddings of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has total authority of the school district and board appointments and is not widely popular among some education advocates and the Chicago Teacher’s Union.
“Decisions are tough, but they are going to be made always with the best interest of the students at heart,” Jackson said. “I’m not a politician, and I’m not looking to get elected, so that’s not my goal as I approach these things. I have to be able to look parents and children in the face we are preparing them for life after they graduate from CPS schools. Where there are cases that schools aren’t providing that level of education, I think it’s my responsibility…I think it would be irresponsible not to do something about that.”
Jackson hopes to use a community-by-community approach to examine schools to figure out what’s best and what is needed to transform schools that need new programming or reinvestment.
The Kenwood Academy High School community has met with the board of education twice over the last school year. In June, students told the board about the condition of the building that is in need of a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system (HVAC).
“The HVAC system is a system that’s not working, we need to be on the 2018 capital budget for an HVAC replacement,” said Ciara Evans, senior at Kenwood and class president in a previous article in the Herald. “The system is from 1969, and it said that it could have a life of 20 years which means we will need a whole new one by our 50th anniversary for Kenwood.”
Pest problems and dirty classrooms, bathrooms and locker rooms were also an issue brought to the board. Last year, two full-time custodians were assigned to clean the building, which is made up of 1,500 students and 100 staff members during school hours.
In April, the school called on the district to provide additional custodial services after the school failed two health inspections last March. The Kenwood community blamed CPS’s failure to provide appropriate custodial resources as a cause of the failed checks. CPS schools receive custodial services provided by Aramark.
In 2014, CPS and Aramark entered into a three-year contract worth $260 million to supply cleaning services to all schools in the district. According to reports, over the span of a few years several hundred custodians have been laid off.
“The issues that they brought to light last year were completely unacceptable,” Jackson said. She added that the problems had been addressed.
Regarding the district’s contract with Aramark Jackson said “my plan is to hold them accountable to the contract they have…the contract in and of itself is not problematic. “We have to make sure that they are meeting the demands of the contract as well as the schools and that’s what I intend to [do to] hold them accountable.”
On Kenwood being added to the district’s capital improvement plan for urgent facility repair projects, IT investments and school security equipment, Jackson said, “as we think about capital improvement throughout the district we have a heavy lift. We have an aging infrastructure that we have to address, and we do prioritize it based on safety and health and also some of the other special projects [such as, Kenwood’s new track and field].”
She also pointed out that “Kenwood has been the recipient of several special projects over the past five years. The HVAC system is something on the list along with other schools that have similar issues.”
The board is expected to vote Jackson in as the permanent CEO of the district at this week’s Chicago Board of Education meeting.