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The past few weeks have been a rollercoaster ride of high turns, low drops and tight curves for CPS Acting CEO Dr. Janice Jackson. Upon the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s third appointed school district CEO Forrest Claypool–former teacher and principal Janice Jackson stepped up to the plate in a leadership role.

What is Jackson faced with at the top of the New Year? An inherited group of irate parents and community activists protesting the four Englewood high school closings, the National Teachers Academy high school proposal and ongoing dissatisfaction from CTU.

But, as the district deals with community trust concerns–they are pleased with their improved graduation rates and students on-track to pursue higher learning in college and other career trades.

“The first thing in my role as chief head officer is to continue to improve the academic performance of the district,” said Jackson.

“It was 30 years ago when CPS was called by the Secretary of the State as one of the worst school districts in the country. Continuing that academic progress is a heavy lift in and out itself. I don’t believe we will be able to do that unless we can continue to expand opportunities for students in communities that feel like they don’t  have enough opportunities in their communities.”

Since the early part of 2017, when the announcement was made by CPS to propose the expansion of National Teachers Academy from a pre-K to 8th grade elementary school to a high school, it refueled a battle between parents and then-CPS CEO Forrest Claypool. Not since the hunger strike at Dyett High School has there been such a outcry from parents to keep the doors of NTA open.

Jackson is aware of the parents, faculty and student’s concern as well as the tense history between wealthier South Loop residents and families from nearby Longrove and Dillard homes. She wants there to be a clearer understanding of the direction of the district.

“Right now, with the addition of the new South Loop elementary school that’s going to be built, in this area that we’re calling ‘Near South’, we have 3,000 elementary students and zero high school seats. We know that demand is not there for 3,000 seats so part of it is to convert some of those elementary seats into high school seats,” she explains. “Number one if you live in that community, and unfortunately this is the exception and not the rule, if this plan is approved–there’s a guaranteed seat at NTA from Pre-K to 12th grade. Nobody wants to talk about that.”

Eighty-five percent of NTA’s student enrollment is predominately Black students, and over the last few years, the school has built a steady academic achievement of becoming a Level+1 status. But, according to CPS it’s not the academic standing of these but few options left for graduating 8th graders seeking quality high schools close to home. For the students who are outside of the regional district centers–many of whom do not live in the community–Jackson says, “they have a stronger chance to attend selective schools by virtue that they’ve been in these regional district centers for 8 years.”

She believes it will create more diversity in a high school setting while allowing students from Long Grove, Dillard and nearby Dearborn Homes to not travel as far as four miles away.

“They will have an opportunity to attend the high school as well as the residents of South Loop and Chinatown. I think it’s a healthy debate around the narrative of this plan. I would hope people will cover the entire plan.”

A similar plan is in motion in Englewood where CPS sets out to close four low-performing high schools–Harper, TEAM Englewood, Roberson and Hope High Schools. A brand new, state-of-the-art high school boosting a $85 million build-out will encourage more families to consider staying close to home.

Jackson says, “Ninety-two percent of high school age students who live in the Englewood boundaries of the four schools, attend school somewhere else. Some people may say they’re going to local charter schools but not all of them are going to charter schools. Most of them are traveling to other neighborhood schools they consider to be a higher quality, more space, etc. There’s a few ways to look at the problem in Englewood. Some people say we should invest more money so more kids will come back but we have tried that.”

Understanding how dramatic the school closings in 2011 affected communities of color, the Auburn Gresham native says she will have a different approach in her new role as CEO. From attending her growth as CPS student, teacher, principal to a parent of an enrolled CPS child–she has a clearer understanding of her responsibility.

“I know that this work is hard and something you can’t get everyone to agree upon. But as a district we can do a good job of educating people, talking to people and explaining why we make decisions as opposed to just making them and having communities to just deal with them,” said Jackson. “I want to take a neighborhood approach to addressing some of the school enrollment issues in the district. Englewood is just one example. But there may be other examples where we merge a school or introduce a new program–a ‘neighborhood by neighborhood’ approach. Not just a sweeping approach but one we can do throughout the city for every school and every community.”

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