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Chicago Public Schools CEO Visits Askwith Forums

Dr. Janice K. Jackson sat down with Professor Deborah Jewell-Sherman to discuss the district’s successes as well as the challenges ahead.
Janice K. Jackson

Dr. Janice K. Jackson speaks with Professor Deborah Jewell-Sherman at the Askwith Forums.

Photo: Elio Pajares

Over the last 30 years, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has risen from one of the lowest-performing public school systems in the United States to one whose graduation and on-track rates are worthy of comparison to those of the best school districts in the country. Last week, at the Askwith Forums, Dr. Janice K. Jackson, CEO of CPS, sat down with Professor Deborah Jewell-Sherman to discuss the district’s successes as well as the challenges ahead.

Jackson outlined the keys to the CPS transformation story, including choice (providing course options within schools and offering clear language and application processes to help families consider school selections); accountability (principals — not just teachers — bearing responsibility for student growth, performance, and outcomes, and deserving credit for successes); vision (a multi-year strategic plan); and data (keeping metrics open and transparent; “We count how many times students sneeze in Chicago,” Jackson joked).

She also spoke passionately about the role of a district leader to provide vision and a roadmap to success, all while holding equity as the guiding light through all challenges.

“I fundamentally believe that talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not,” Jackson said. “If we’re really serious about equity, this means we need to make sure that all students are given the same opportunities, no matter what their skin color, zip code, or what they bring to the table.” Strategizing through the lens of equity in CPS, Jackson has set a goal of hiring 3,000 African American and Latinx teachers by 2024.

Despite the progress, challenges remain in the district, including a decline in enrollment and safety concerns, the latter of which have driven many people out of Chicago. “We have to make sure the schools are quality,” Jackson said. “Then, school can be a ‘pull’ factor, or an anchor, to keep [families] in the community.”

Addressing her audience of students and educators, Jackson spoke of what she has learned in her time as an education leader. “What you say in private needs to be the same thing you say publicly,” Jackson said when asked about handling politics and differing perspectives in her role. “The most powerful professional development I’ve ever experienced is figuring out who I am, since we all have blind spots.”

Using her own career as an example of working relentlessly for a “dream job,” Jackson encouraged everyone to pursue their goals and never accept that they can’t reach them, but also to be open to discovering passions along the way.

“Find the place where you think you can add the most value, show up with a plan to add that value, and things will fall into place…. That will become your dream job.”

Listen to the Harvard EdCast with Janice K. Jackson.