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Janice Jackson on the politics of fall reopening and what’s next for Chicago’s outgoing schools chief

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and school chief Janice Jackson standing by a microphone.
Outgoing Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson spoke with Chalkbeat following her decision to step down from her post in the coming months.
Stacey Rupolo / Chalkbeat

After a year of twists and turns for Chicago Public Schools, CEO Janice Jackson surprised even some in district leadership earlier this week when she announced she would step down when her contract expires this summer.

The search for Jackson’s replacement comes at a critical juncture for the country’s third-largest district, which faces the complex tasks of re-engaging students and families, reopening for full-time in-person instruction, and addressing academic and mental health damage wrought by the pandemic. Jackson says this high-stakes moment felt like the right time to make way for a leader who would bring fresh energy and perspective to the position.

One major item on Jackson’s to-do list for the next couple of months: position the district to resume in-person instruction five days a week. At a virtual town hall Thursday evening, she said she believes in-person learning should be mandatory for students in the fall though a virtual option would exist for those with medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Jackson spoke with Chalkbeat Chicago about her decision to leave, the agenda for her remaining months in office, and what might be next for her and the district’s top post.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You said earlier this week that you had been weighing whether to step down for a few months. Was there a moment that tipped the scales or any final deciding factor?

It wasn’t one thing. I think it’s just the culmination of a long stretch. If you think about what I’ve been through over the last almost seven years, it’s just been a lot to manage: the financial crisis that we were addressing in the district, the sex abuse scandal, and then COVID. We’ve been on the brink of a strike multiple times. We’ve had a long, protracted strike. But we’ve also been able to steer the district in the right direction. Both qualitatively and quantitatively, there’s a lot of data to support that.

When I looked ahead, the person who’s going to lead the district needs a lot of energy to help us recover from this past year. And if I knew that I couldn’t commit four years and do it with the same vigor that I have this past year, I think it was time to pass the baton.

You have been seen as a leader who brings stability and consistency to the district after a lot of upheaval in the top job. How heavily did the expectation that you would stick around weigh on you?

It was heavy. I knew that people would be surprised. I knew some people would be disappointed. But personally, I also knew that I had to make the best decision for me and my family. When I signed up for this role, I knew that a big part of that is that, oftentimes, you end up giving more to people outside of your home than you do in your home and to your family. My family has been awesome and supportive, and they’re incredibly proud. But I also think I owe them a lot more, and it’s not just spending time with them, but being fully present.

And I would be lying if I said the pandemic didn’t help put that stuff into perspective. It showed me that you can slow down, and the world still turns. But I also think that a lot was lost during the pandemic, and so I need to cherish the time I have with my kids.

What advice would you give to your successor, particularly about navigating the politics of this role?

When I talk to educators, people say, “Well, I don’t like the politics,” and I don’t like them either. But you need to know them and be able to navigate them. Otherwise, you will be eaten alive, especially in Chicago. But my advice is to not get distracted by them. It’s a part of the job. But what I think I did well, most of the time — not all the time — is stay focused on the main thing, which is educating our kids.

I would also say they have to talk to the community and engage people. And I think we’ve made a lot of progress in that area but still can do more. Using technology — that was one thing I learned during the pandemic — we can bring more people together, and it really takes away some of the excuses around not engaging the public before you make decisions.

How much autonomy did you have from City Hall in your role?

I think I had a lot of autonomy to lead every day under Mayor Emanuel as well as under Mayor Lightfoot. Both of them care deeply about education. I know they meet with CPS and the police department the most. I approach this knowing that the mayor appoints the superintendent, she appoints the board, and they are held accountable for what happens here. It was my job to make sure there are no surprises. It’s also my job to make sure they’re comfortable with the direction that things are going in. When we do disagree on things, there’s space to talk about that. There hasn’t been any decision where I’m ready to quit in protest because we’re just philosophically on two different sides.

This year, I would be lying if I didn’t say children being out of school impacted me deeply. Deeply. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. I think the only way I’ll get over it is if I’m proven wrong, that a generation of kids hasn’t been impacted by this year. Our children — kids like me, where I grew up — we need school. And the fact that they didn’t have it for over a year, I was angry about that. If I’m being honest, I’m probably still angry about that.

I know you have said that one of your big to-do items for the remaining months on the job is to prepare the district to fully reopen in the fall. Does the district plan to negotiate with the Chicago Teachers Union over fully reopening? And if so, what will your role be?

We’ve made clear that we want students back in school full time, five days a week in the fall. I think hybrid was a good compromise. But if I had my druthers, it would have been five days. I think, number one, we have to see what the governor is going to do with regard to the emergency declaration. If we’re in the same position that we’re in right now, we have to negotiate a return to in-person instruction with teachers. I think we have a great foundation and framework in the agreement that we have for this year.

But I think if the governor does say that everybody’s going back to school, I think then we will still have discussions about making sure people understand what school will look like and how to commit the resources to make sure people are safe in schools. But I think there will be no reason not to reopen schools in the fall. We have the money to do it, thanks to the stimulus funds that we’ve received from the government.

The Chicago Teachers Union complained that you were not personally at the negotiating table when conversations about reopening elementary schools were underway. Do you expect to play a more direct role in any upcoming talks?

To be clear, I have always been deeply involved in the negotiation process. There are lawyers at the table, the chief ed officer, the chief operating officer. I can’t run a district of 350,000 students where the three top people managing the district are sitting at a negotiation table for 12 hours. It makes absolutely no sense. The union knows that no CEO or superintendent sits at the table and does negotiations. It just doesn’t work like that.

The district has said that you are getting ready to unveil a sweeping plan to recover from the academic and mental health fallout from the pandemic. What’s the holdup?

We want to do a big reveal that’s comprehensive. If we start picking and choosing, people are not going to see the full plan, and they’re going to criticize it because we haven’t shown them everything. I feel really good about where we are with regard to addressing learning loss and social and emotional learning issues. But I also know that is just one component of a larger plan to help our city recover from the pandemic. So it’s coming soon. It will be out before I leave.

Is there a plan to appoint an interim CEO while the district looks for your permanent replacement?

I think that’s more of a question for the mayor. But I do know the search firm is working pretty aggressively on that. That’s why it was important to make the announcement this week because that’ll give us two full months. If we’re close at the end of June, and I need to help out, we’ll do what needs to be done. But if it seems like it’s going to be a longer process, I would imagine the mayor might have to tap an interim.

Have you been in touch with potential candidates for your position? Do you expect that you’ll help with recruiting?

If people are interested in the job, I will tell them all the wonderful reasons why they should take the job and answer questions that they may have. This is a great job. It’s a high-profile job. A lot of people will be happy to have it. But if I’m being honest, there are a lot of people who are going to be concerned. The things I see on the national news about education here and the relationship with the union — it’s something that people would have to think twice about if they’re coming from outside the district, and they don’t understand the context. And so I’m just trying to make sure people understand that what you see on Twitter and on the news is not CPS, that CPS is so much more than that.

You spoke candidly about the troubled relationship between district management and the CTU earlier this week. In retrospect, are you concerned that this kind of talk can scare off some prospective candidates?

I don’t think I said anything that people don’t already know. I hope what people heard from that, too, is that there are more places where we agree than disagree. Of course, that’s not what gets covered and talked about. It’s not as sexy as the quips that go back and forth. I’ve never disparaged the union. But I do think, if we’re all being honest, that the rhetoric and the tactics that our union uses are unique, and they stand out, and I can tell you that people across the country know about it and follow it.

You’ve said that leading Chicago Public Schools has been your dream job. What is your post-CPS dream job?

That’s the part that’s weird because I’ve spent my whole life trying to get here. I would have loved to be secretary of education. But that wasn’t a dream of mine. I really got to do the dream. So I don’t have a job or next role that makes the most sense to me. After doing what I love for 22 years, I would never take a job where I don’t have that same fire and passion. I don’t use an alarm clock. I get up every single day ready to do it because this work matters to me.

Do you have some job leads?

I have plenty of job offers, but no, I have not committed to what’s gonna happen next.

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