CHICAGO (CBS) -- After more than three years at the helm of the nation's third-largest school district, Dr. Janice Jackson is leaving as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools.
Jackson said she will not be renewing her contract as CEO when it expires on June 30.
"It is time to pass the torch to new leadership for the next chapter," she wrote in a letter to CPS staff.
Calling the CEO's position her "dream job," Jackson recalled first stepping into a CPS classroom when her parents took her to register at Cook Elementary in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood.
"I remember being upset, because I couldn't stick around that day, because it was registration, and had to return the next day, and I did, and pretty much I haven't left ever since," she said at a press conference Monday afternoon at City Hall.
Jackson said, before she leaves office at the end of June, she plans to roll out the district's plan to address the significant challenges that many students have faced while learning remotely for months. She said she also will be launching a new universal curriculum, known as Skyline, which she described as a "transformative resource for our schools."
She also said she will continue moving forward with plans to have all CPS students back in classrooms full-time next fall. Currently, most students are still learning from home, though thousands are back in classrooms part-time.
"As we look to the fall, with all of the things that we have in place, we know a lot more about this disease, we have the money to do this safely; kids will be back in school full-time in the fall," Jackson said. "We had to completely redesign how school functions, while ensuring that parents had access to free high-speed internet, nutritious meals, and technology."
Jackson, the first CPS graduate to be appointed the CEO, has worked in various capacities at CPS for 22 years, including as a teacher, principal, administrator, and chief education officer.
She taught history at South Shore High School, and was principal of both Al Raby High School and Westinghouse College Prep, before becoming a CPS network chief and later chief education officer – essentially the district's second-in-command – starting in 2015.
Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel tapped Jackson as CEO in December 2017, after then-chief Forrest Claypool resigned in the wake of a report that concluded he lied to ethics investigators during a probe involving the school district's top attorney, a close friend of Claypool's. The Chicago Board of Education confirmed her as full-time CEO in January 2018, and Lightfoot kept her on when she took office in 2019.
"I have lived my entire life and served this district for 22 years. I have given my all to our students, and in return I received far more," she said. "This job has been everything I dreamt of, and sometimes a little bit more than that."
Jackson also has two children who are CPS students.
During her nearly 3 1/2 years leading the district, Jackson has overseen record graduation rates, improvements in math and reading scores, and the rollout of a universal preschool system. But she also has seen her share of scandals, including a federal investigation that found systemic failures in handling hundreds of reports of sexual abuse and assault, and a state investigation into systemic problems that delayed or denied special education services to students who needed them.
Jackson also led the district during its first teachers' strike in seven years in 2019, followed by the total shutdown of the district due to the pandemic in 2020. CPS shut down its schools last March amid the first surge in COVID-19 cases, and students were forced to learn remotely until the district gradually started bringing students back in January. High school students were the last to return to classrooms last month.
Jackson admitted all of those things factored into her decision not to extend her contract beyond the end of June, acknowledging her time as CEO has left her "a little tired, if I'm being honest."
"I've worked my entire life while going to school, being a mom, leading, etc. I do need a break, and so I'm going to take that break," Jackson said.
Two other top executives at CPS also are leaving in the near future, as chief education officer LaTanya McDade will step down at the end of the school year to become superintendent of Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia; and chief operating officer Arnie Rivera also is leaving the district.
However, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she is confident CPS will be able to maintain stability heading into next school year.
"Dr. Jackson and her team have built a very strong group of leaders across the system. This is the third-largest school system in the country. Not one person can make everything work. It takes a massive team, and there is a massive team at all different levels," she said. "Yes, there are big shoes to fill, but I don't think we're going to miss a beat. I feel very enthusiastic about the opportunities that this transition provides to us as a system, but also as a state."
Lightfoot said she and her administration likely will focus first on finding a new CEO for the district, and having that person help put a new leadership team in place.
While the mayor repeatedly touted the strength of the leadership team still in place at CPS, she said the next CEO won't necessarily come from within the district.
"Obviously, understanding the nuances of CPS are going to be of benefit, but I'm confident there's a lot of talent across the country," she said. "I think the CPS diaspora is deep and strong. People have left this district and gone on to other districts, but I actually just think the wealth of talent across the country, I feel very, very confident that we will get a great leadership team."
Lightfoot also said she has retained a "top notch" search firm to assist in the search for a new CEO, and will help her take the pulse of parents, students, teachers, principals, and other administrators as they seek out Jackson's successor.
In a statement, the Chicago Teachers Union said: "We wish CEO Janice Jackson, Chief Education Officer McDade and COO Rivera the best in their future endeavors, and look forward to a collegial and collaborative relationship with their successors as we continue our work toward creating the schools our students deserve."
However, the union also said CPS families and school communities must be given an active role in choosing the next CEO, and said the departure of the district's three top executives "cannot be a deterrent to addressing the needs of our school communities, which have been exacerbated in this pandemic."
"We are hopeful the mayor can improve on her ability to work collaboratively and cohesively with others, in particular her own staff and appointees in CPS, because trauma support, special education and bilingual education resources, and equitable spending of federal funding remain high priorities for families and educators. The next CPS CEO will also be working with an elected school board, so democracy has to be at the forefront of everything our district does in providing services for hundreds of thousands of CPS children and families," the union said in a statement.
As for Jackson's next steps, she said she doesn't know what her next job will be, but said she has accepted a fellowship at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
"So I am going to have some time to stop and think, talk about what I love – public education, specifically high schools – and so you'll be hearing more about that," she said.
"You will not see me running another school district," she added. "But I will continue to devote my professional life to public education, and I will continue to look for ways to lift up students and families who need us the most. But for now my family is ready for me to spend more time with them, and until they are not – which is probably in two seconds, because you're dealing with teenagers – I'll focus on that."
Jackson also said she has no plans to run for public office.
"Maybe the elected school board once that gets set up, but other than that, no, I have no interest in politics," Jackson said with a laugh.
When Lightfoot ran for mayor, she said she backed a fully elected school board for CPS, but has opposed a plan in Springfield to create a 21-member board, calling it unwieldy. Instead, Lightfoot has introduced plans for a hybrid board, which would allow for two elected members on a seven-member board starting in 2026, and three elected members on an 11-seat board in 2028, leaving the mayor with control of a majority of the board.
Illinois Senate President Don Harmon has called on both sides to compromise on an elected school board plan, backing a transition from a hybrid board to a fully-elected board.
While not directly supporting Harmon's idea, Lightfoot said Monday she agrees there needs to be compromise on an elected school board plan in Springfield, and said she has been working with Harmon, Illinois House Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch, and others for months in an effort to do just that.
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