Barbara Eason-Watkins:

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As chief education officer, Barbara Eason-Watkins, Ed. D., is the highest-ranking Black person in the city’s public school system. Chicago Public Schools is the third largest school district in the country with 417,000 students and over 675 schools,

As chief education officer, Barbara Eason-Watkins, Ed. D., is the highest-ranking Black person in the city’s public school system. Chicago Public Schools is the third largest school district in the country with 417,000 students and over 675 schools, which includes charter, magnet, neighborhood and selective enrollment schools. Her office has oversight over the district’s 612 principals and the curriculum for all schools except charter schools. The daughter of a teacher and minister, she has spent the last 35 years working at CPS, including stints as a teacher and principal, and has no plans to retire anytime soon. “I love what I do. And what I do every day is search for ways to make our schools better,” Dr. Eason-Watkins, 58, told the Defender. “I want to see all our schools improve from magnet to neighborhood schools.” The career educator, who was elevated to her current post in 2001 by former school district CEO Arne Duncan, said her rise at CPS did not come easy. Eason-Watkins was principal of Mollison Elementary School from 1985-1988. She also served as the principal at McCosh Elementary School (now known as Emmett Till Math & Science Elementary) from 1988-2001. “As a principal I was always challenged to improve test scores, motivate teachers and encourage parents to take a greater role in their children’s education,” Eason-Watkins recalled. “There is never a dull moment around here. There is always something I can be doing to make education better.” Eason-Watkins said she does not do these things alone. “I have a great support staff and I work with a group of wonderful people from our CEO Ron Huberman to all our chief area officers. It makes a difference when you work with a dedicated team of people committed to making education a top priority,” she explained. In January 2009 Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Ron Huberman to succeed Duncan, now U.S. Education Secretary, even though Watkins had also sought the post. “Regardless of what my title is my passion has and always will be to make our schools the very best,” she said. And Eason-Watkins insists she plans to stay for the long haul at CPS. “This is a wonderful place to work and I have a great opportunity here to make a difference in the lives of thousands of children,” she said. “Knowing this why would I leave? This is not the first time a job I sought I did not get. That’s part of life. You win some and you lose some.” Eason-Watkins’ passion for the students and their education is immediately evident in conversations with her.á She has no problem boasting a school’s success or pointing out a need for change – including closures – when a school struggles. “Closing schools is always difficult because schools are the anchor of the community. But sometimes it is necessary to close schools in order to improve the climate for students and staff,” she said. “It takes a lot to turn around school but I am committed to doing whatever it takes to make our schools world-class learning institutions.” Next school year CPS plans to turnaround John Marshall High School on the West Side, which has been on academic probation for the last 13 years. “No school should go that long struggling academically and we recognize that and are moving forward to not only improve Marshall but to make sure no school falls this far behind again,” Eason-Watkins said. She pointed to modifications CPS instituted at Harlan and Harper high schools on the South Side as an example of schools in Black communities benefiting from changes. “Those were two schools that once struggled to produce satisfactory graduation rates. But with changes we incorporated at both schools attendance and graduation rates have improved and continue to improve,” she said. “Principals play a critical role in a school improving. That’s why it is so important to have the right leadership in place at schools.” Eason-Watkins lives in the Beverly community with her husband of 20 years but is originally from Michigan where she began her career as an elementary teacher. She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Michigan where she also became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. She earned a master’s in educational administration from Chicago State University and a doctorate in education from Loyola University.á

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