- Chicago Public Schools, facing well-publicized budget crises and high turnover in the district's top seat in recent years, has made its way to the top-performing district in the country by focusing on principal leadership, retention and support, said Chief Education Officer Dr. Janice Jackson at an event held in DC in partnership with the Education Trust Friday.
- Working with partners, including the University of Chicago and local nonprofit fundraising organization Chicago Public Education Fund, the district has been able to make a large investment in individual school leaders. Heather Anichini, CEO of the Fund, said leaders in the city quickly realized that with budget scarcities, "You’ve got to really think about where strategic dollars can go far," and all partners in the city decided to invest in the same thing: leadership.
- Jackson is particularly proud that principals who are selected as fellows in a leadership program supported by the fund "do policy work," not only giving the district 30-40 principals per year who can be "out on the front lines advocating for the things that matter," but equipping these principals with better understanding of what district administrators are faced and budget allocations, while also reducing complaints.
Leaders in Chicago and those who observe the district from the outside are quick to say there is no one single bullet that led to school improvement in the district. In fact, in many ways, the improvement was in response to a need to get creative after hands were all but tied by state policy. For instance, state laws passed in 1988 and 1995 made Chicago the most de-centralized large urban school system in the country, and mandated, among other things, that curriculum and budget decisions have to be made at the local level. The district has embraced this and run with it, said Jackson, whose first experience with CPS was as a student in Head Start, and who worked her way from student in CPS to teacher to the district's top seat.
Partners have bought in to the need to support the district's priorities and work together, rather than operating in silos that address different identified needs, all with a focus on autonomy and accountability for local principals. "When you pull out legacy debt and pension obligations, the dollars that actually get down to schools are pretty small, and you can do one of two things with that: You can look for one model that we think works across the board, or you can let the principals make the decisions on the ground," Anichini said.
Jackson cited the diversity of building needs for the district's 125 different schools as one of the reasons such a model of focusing on individual principals works so well. The majority of the school principals — and teachers — are hired by local education boards comprised of members who have a vested interest in the community and school, not by the central office, putting even more building control in the hands of those who will be most impacted by decisions surrounding it.
"The principals have been a key lever of change in Chicago. I think leadership matters, and there’s been a lot of turnover at the CEO level, but we would not have been able to see the growth if not for great leadership at the school level," she said.
The boards also approve the school budgets. And though such a de-centralized model may seem a harrowing concept for most district leaders, Jackson said it works because, in addition to the differences in building needs, "innovation moves faster on the ground," and strong "parent leadership, leadership with our local school councils, ... strong leadership across the board, [which allows] people [to] make a faster impact" in individual buildings.
Of the leadership fellows program, Rodolfo Rojas, principal of Edward Everett Elementary School and a participant, said the opportunity really gave him an appreciation for "how limited the money is and how far they have to stretch it."