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Kavitha Cardoza, Education Week
Kavitha Cardoza, Education Week
Chicago Public Schools, one of the largest school systems in the country, is reporting academic improvement in spite of past troubles. Now city leaders are looking to new CEO Janice Jackson to keep things moving forward. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week reports.
But first, the Chicago public school system is one of the largest in the country, and historically one of the most troubled.
Its problems, and its efforts to turn things around, are often watched nationally. But in spite of past troubles, Chicago schools are reporting academic improvement.
Now city leaders are hoping to keep things moving forward with a new boss, who believes school principals are the key.
Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza, with our partner Education Week, filed this report from the Windy City. It's for our weekly segment Making the Grade.
Calling Janice Jackson new to anything in Chicago Public Schools isn't quite accurate.
Jackson has deep roots in the system, starting as a toddler in Head Start. Since then-
I have been a student in CPS, a teacher, a principal, a district leader. The one I think that is most important is that role of parent.
In January, she took over as CEO of Chicago's school system. Jackson recognized the importance of developing principal leaders early on.
The media and Hollywood portrays educators as these heroic leaders, and you have this one person who comes in and changes everything. And I think that can happen, but it's not sustainable, right? I learned very quickly that it takes a team in order to be successful.
Jackson walks through George Westinghouse College Prep, one of the most successful high schools in the state. She was founding principal.
When I took over, some would say that I had big shoes to fill. I said, I have big stilettos to fill.
Principal Patrick McGill took over from Jackson. He's aware of her laser focus on supporting principals, because Jackson was and he says continues to be, his mentor.
Right away, I knew she was going to be someone I could learn from. What I didn't know is how much she was really committed to helping me learn how to be a leader.
Jackson has seen the challenges in Chicago schools up close. She was in the fifth grade when the then U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett said he didn't know a worse school system than Chicago.
More recently, the last two CEOs resigned in disgrace, one for corruption
And I apologize to them.
They deserved much more.
The other for ethical violations.
I regret actions, and I have apologized for them.
There were teacher strikes and a city-wide uproar when 50 schools were closed. Like other big cities, Chicago embraced testing, school closings and teacher accountability, ideas that many critics say have not made enough of a difference for student learning.
Even now, fewer than a third of children in Chicago can read and do math on grade level. Despite the turmoil at the top, a Stanford study found Chicago students are learning at a faster pace than other children.
The growth rate from third to eighth grade in Chicago is the fastest among the 100 large districts in the United States. It is number one.
Sean Reardon co-authored that study. He found that Chicago children were squeezing six years worth of learning into five years.
Not just for large districts, but the national average for all kids in the country.
That growth was for boys and girls of all races.
It's really impressive that this is a universal change.
Jenny Nagaoka is a researcher with the University of Chicago who studies the city's public schools.
You know, sometimes, in other districts, when you hear of something like this, it could be because teachers and students are more familiar with the test. Sometimes, it's teachers are teaching to the tests. Sometimes, it's outright cheating.
People often think, when they see that, that there's something fishy going on here. But it turns out these improvements are not just happening on one test. We're seeing this across different tests.
And Nagaoka says it's not just on tests.
High school graduation rates are up in Chicago over the past 10 years. They have gone from 57 percent to 74 percent. We're seeing more students going on to college. We're seeing improvements in ACT scores. We're seeing improvements in GPAs.
Researchers largely credit the district's focus on principals. Studies increasingly show a critical link between school leadership and student learning. Effective principals support teachers, who in turn support children.
Steve Tozer runs a doctoral program for principals at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
He was also Jackson's professor. He says it's the most effective way to scale up academic success. The numbers are manageable.
Illinois, one of the most populous states, only needs 400 new principals a year; 400 principals a year, if prepared at a high level, would significantly improve student learning throughout the state; 400 principals a year, that's half the size of my high school class. This is a scale that we can actually operate at.
Chicago schools have high concentrations of poverty, like other cities. But it has provided a lot of support and mentoring for principals and a lot of autonomy for successful ones.
District leaders say the proof the strategy works? Improved test scores. Even so, there are parents and teachers who feel their voices are being ignored. A flash point? School closings.
Shaasia Martin is a parent who's upset about further closings.
My entire family went here.
She says Harper High, where she and her siblings went for school and which is her daughter now attends, is an anchor in her trouble neighborhood. She's frustrated that it's one of four area high schools slated to close.
Safety is a huge issue, you know? And you are telling me that they have got to go further into neighborhoods that they don't know?
Jackson has delayed the closings until current students graduate, but says they will close. There are too few students to support programs.
But Jesse Sharkey, with the Chicago Teachers Union, says there's a reason for the low enrollment. He says the district has starved neighborhood schools of resources, even as several different charter schools have been allowed to open nearby.
And while their enrollment has skyrocketed, the enrollment at these neighborhood schools has plummeted. It's almost like they have tried to implement a sort of survivor, kick people off the island behind a vision of test score competition.
Sharkey says this is an ongoing effort to privatize education. He says they should measure success on more than just test scores.
Let's measure outcomes in terms of, are students able to get trades? Are students able to succeed at college? Let's measure things like violence in and around schools.
Parents like Anika Matthews-Feldman agree.
There's absolutely no trust. That means you're not working for the children in the schools. You're working for whatever the mayor just tells you to do for the schools.
Jackson knows her biggest challenge as CEO is building the same kind of trust systemwide that she enjoyed as school principal.
When I became a district leader, I noticed that people just don't — they love the school, but they don't trust the system.
And she's aware that many see her as Mayor Rahm Emanuel's political appointee.
Someone called you the mayor's puppet.
I disagree with that. The mayor has a vision that I happen to agree with, and a vision that I think works.
Jackson realizes she has plenty of challenges ahead, declining enrollment, enormous debt, and the state is investigating special education services. But she says she's ready for the job.
Don't let the smile fool you. I think I have a nice blend of high expectations and support. And I think that's what helped me get to this level.
I believe if you just have high expectations without support, you're setting kids up for failure. And I think if you only support them, you are supporting them to death. And, really, I just want to get to a place where our students just are learning for the sake of learning.
For the "PBS NewsHour" and Education Week, I'm Kavitha Cardoza in Chicago.
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