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Illinois State Superintendent Carmen Ayala announces retirement

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Illinois State Superintendent Carmen Ayala is retiring in February after four years as the state’s top education official. She was the first woman and person of color to hold the job.

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This story has been updated with a statement from Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Illinois State Superintendent Carmen Ayala announced Thursday she will retire in February. 

Gov. J. B. Pritzker appointed Ayala to serve as the state’s top education official in 2019 – making her the first woman and person of color to hold the position. 

“For the last almost 40 years, I have been so blessed to serve the students in Illinois,” Ayala said to board members at the state board of education meeting on Thursday. “If anyone knows me, they know that equity is my passion. I’ve been referred to as an equity warrior.”

In a statement, Pritzker said Ayala “has positively impacted thousands of Illinois students.” 

“Not only did Dr. Ayala’s steadfast leadership guide our schools through an unprecedented pandemic, but she also kick-started students’ academic recovery,” Pritzker said.

The governor’s office noted that Ayala’s contract expires Jan. 31, 2023. Pritzker will appoint a replacement to serve alongside him in a second term.

As state superintendent, Ayala oversaw more than 850 school districts serving more than 2 million children.  She helped navigate the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when Pritzker ordered all schools to close amid the outbreak. She worked with the administration on the state’s guidance for reopening schools and has led the state board as districts have experienced two difficult recovery years. 

Before the pandemic hit, Ayala embarked on a yet-to-be realized overhaul of state standardized testing. Earlier this year, the state board decided against making changes to how it assesses student learning. Like the rest of the country, Illinois students’ math and reading scores dropped during the pandemic and have yet to recover, according to the latest data. 

Ayala previously served as superintendent of west suburban Berwyn North School District 98 and was assistant superintendent at Plainfield District 202 in the far western suburbs. She led diversity and inclusion work while in Plainfield at a time when the district had become increasingly racially diverse.

Steven Isoye, chairman of the Illinois state board of education, applauded Ayala’s work on equity and encouraged her to “pick up the phone” if the board does not continue focusing on that.

“You sent a strong message to all of the leaders across the state about how we really need to embrace the work on equity for all students and it was loud and clear,” Isoye said. “And it reverberates and will continue to reverberate even as you retire.” 

Ayala started her career at Chicago Public Schools, where she was a teacher for five years, and worked as both a teacher and administrator at Community Consolidated School District 300 in Algonquin and Aurora East School District 131.

Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at bvevea@chalkbeat.org.

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