Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has named José Torres, a former superintendent of the state’s second largest school district, to serve as the interim schools chief of Chicago Public Schools until a permanent replacement is hired to succeed CEO Janice Jackson.
The school district has said it aims to have a new CEO in place by Aug. 1, but extended its application window for candidates, and observers say the timeline is extremely aggressive. The interim CEO announcement signals that the mayor wants to be prepared for a lengthier stretch in between permanent top leaders.
Lightfoot said Monday that Torres is not a candidate for the permanent job and that had he just retired when the city reached out. His appointment must still be confirmed by the city’s Board of Education.
Torres said Monday that his top priorities are reopening schools full-time, five days a week in the fall and re-engaging students and families.
“Some of our older students have given up, and we want to bring them back,” Torres said at a Monday press conference with Lightfoot and Jackson.
Torres, a native of Puerto Rico who began his career as a middle school teacher, worked in Chicago schools as a regional superintendent overseeing 25 schools in the mid-2000s. He left Chicago to take the CEO job at the state’s second largest school district, Elgin’s U-46, in 2008. After six years in Elgin, he took the top job at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora; he retired earlier this month.
He also previously held leadership roles in Anne Arundel County Public Schools and San Jose Unified School District.
“We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Torres back to Chicago,” said Lightfoot, who touted his commitment to diversity and inclusion. “His stellar track record and career and his lived experience make him a great fit for this role.”
The mayor is also appointing Maurice Swinney, the district’s chief equity officer, as interim chief education officer. Swinney will step in for LaTanya McDade, who is leaving to lead Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia.
The district hired the firm BWP & Associates to conduct a national search for Jackson’s successor after she announced this spring she would step down when her contract expires at the end of this month.
Jackson, who served in the post about three years, has said that she has offered her help with the transition at the district’s helm.
This summer and early fall present crucial junctures for the country’s third largest district, which also has vacancies in its No. 2 and No. 3 leadership positions: With billions of federal stimulus dollars in hand, the district is gearing up to reopen its schools for full-time, mandatory in-person learning and begin addressing the academic and mental health fallout from the pandemic.
The district slightly extended its application deadline for the CEO position, to June 25. As of last week, 20 candidates had started the application process, including 12 who submitted completed applications, according to a search firm update for the board. The search firm is also reaching out to some education leaders and encouraging them to apply.
BWP will review applications, vet the candidates, and come up with a list of semifinalists for the position. A selection committee composed of Board members, CPS and City leaders, as well as a teacher, principal, and two parents will interview those semifinalists and eventually forward one to three finalists to Lightfoot. Del Valle and Lightfoot will interview the frontrunners, with Lightfoot making the final decision.
The mayor has touted the process as more transparent and attuned to employee and community input than any recent schools chief appointment, which usually happens “behind closed doors,” as the mayor herself put it.
Lightfoot acknowledged Monday that the district’s timeline for finding a permanent CEO is aggressive, but she said she is still committed to it, adding the search firm has gotten applications from “good talent.”
The district conducted a survey and hosted more than 30 focus groups and about 15 search firm interviews with board members, district leaders, and city officials to gauge what employees, parents, and other residents would like to see in the next CEO.
At a virtual event hosted by the nonprofit A Better Chicago last week, Jackson said her replacement has a major challenge in store. That leader must focus on winning back students who disengaged from learning or fell behind academically during this unprecedented school year, Jackson said. That includes students who took jobs to help with family budgets strained by the crisis, for whom the district might offer some flexibility to continue their studies, she said.
“The biggest challenge ahead of us is student re-engagement,” she said. “It would be naive to think that once we open the doors, they’re going to come. We know after national disasters, large portions of students never return to school.”
Jackson also urged the next CEO to focus on providing more robust services for students with special needs, who were some of those hardest hit by the pandemic’s academic disruption.
“If I had a magic wand and a do-over,” she said, “I would do over how we supported students with disabilities.”