CPS Chief Janice Jackson on UIC: ‘I made the right choice’

Janice Jackson has been involved in the Chicago Public Schools her entire life. She was a CPS student from Head Start, an early education program for low-income families, through 12th grade, then began her teaching career at Chicago South Shore High School. Since that time, Jackson has served as a principal, network chief, the chief education officer and now as chief executive officer for CPS, the third largest school district in the country. Since assuming the role of chief education officer in 2015, Jackson has focused on building equity, excellence and access across the district, especially with regard to CPS high schools. Jackson is a progressive, forward-thinking educator who believes in setting the bar high. Jackson holds a Master of Education degree with a field of study in leadership and administration, as well as a Doctor of Education degree with a field of study in urban education leadership, both from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

UIC: To begin, what roles do you envision the UIC College of Education playing to support the CPS’ vision to provide a world-class education for its students?

Jackson: Well, I think UIC plays several roles; the first and most notable is to provide teachers for Chicago Public Schools. UIC has provided teachers through a pipeline from its teacher education program for decades and I see that as the most critical support they can give to Chicago Public Schools. Through the Urban Leadership Program in the College of Education, the work they are doing around identifying high-quality principals to lead and transform schools is definitely a game changer for our school system, where we have seen a remarkable turnaround. Just having a place, or destination, for Chicago Public School student graduates. I was at Epic Academy High School on the Southeast Side and met a young lady who was featured on the news for getting more than a million dollars in scholarships, but she’s going to the University of Illinois and when she said that to me, I was so thrilled.

UIC: What message would you like to provide to aspiring teachers and administrators at UIC who want to become a part of CPS?

Jackson: I think that many of the values that we share as an organization are the same values that UIC possesses, so I think that is a good place to start. One thing that I would say is that for the teacher education programs, we like to see more graduates leaving those programs, working for Chicago Public Schools, and really seeing it as a career and a destination, not just a first stop. I really want to make sure that the program is prioritizing how you help develop teachers who can work in urban school settings and teachers who are going to be able to come in and transform schools through what they do in their classrooms. I think UIC’s principal training program is doing that on a large scale, and I would like to see more and more of that from the teacher program. The advice that I would give them is to look for schools that have effective school leaders. The principal plays a critical role in school transformation and school quality. Oftentimes, especially with new teachers, they select schools for a variety of reasons. I would say the primary thing they should be looking at is school leadership. School leadership is going to determine the support they receive once they become teachers, and it definitely has a correlation to how long they are going to remain teachers.

UIC: Can you discuss how the College of Education at UIC prepared you for your role as an instructor and as a school administrator?

Jackson: I had a wonderful experience at UIC. When I say that ‘I am UIC,’ I truly believe that. In addition, I learned a lot in my master’s program as I was getting my certification and master’s degree to be a school leader and principal. This notion, which is commonplace now, that principals are instructional leaders, was new back in the early 2000s when I was in that program. It really shaped my identity as a school leader and administrator. Operational and communication skills are critically important when you lead a community. What UIC taught me is the importance of being an instructional leader and that the principal is the lead learner in every school building. Your major focus has to be on developing the capacity of others and that makes the school better in so many different ways. I would say that is the biggest impact of what I learned at UIC. Also at UIC, having access to some of the best professors in the country is definitely an added benefit. UIC’s Urban Educational Institute for School Leadership is one of the most renowned programs in the country. People come from all over to see what UIC is doing to produce principals. I am just lucky to be one of those former principals, who is now leading a district where we have access to that pipeline because I really believe they are developing people who can go to any school and turn it around.

UIC: How did the Urban Education Leadership Doctorate Program prepare you for your role as Chicago Public Schools chief executive officer?

Jackson: This notion of ‘continuous improvement’ is a big part of the UIC motto. Even when you succeed and you hit a goal, the next one is always there and you should have your eye on trying to continue to improve. The program teaches you how to do that in a very practical and scalable way. I have been in and known of programs that are well defined and well designed, but they are all theory. Sometimes practitioners may be somewhat familiar with the research but not immersed in it, or there are people who know the research front-and-back but they are practicing it. UIC does an excellent job of marrying theory and practice, and oftentimes, there is not that marriage. What you see from leaders who have gone through UIC’s program is that they understand both the theory and the practical implications of the work. I love policy and I am a policy wonk. A lot of that was cultivated and developed in the UIC studies program centered on urban leadership that taught us different frameworks and how you look at policy and analyze it, and how you create it and implement it. I think I bring many of those tools to this role. One of the first things that I changed when I became chief education officer was to think about the ways we change policy here in the district. UIC really provided us with a lot of research and frameworks around how to get buy-in from people on the ground. As CEO, one of my goals is to make sure that we operate as a full district, not a set of individual schools. There is no better way to do that than making sure that the leaders at the school level are involved in policy creation, formation and implementation. That is something that is a direct result of my participation in the UIC program.

UIC: This year, UIC announced the Chancellor Fellows Aim High initiative, which offers incoming high achieving high school students an opportunity to have their tuition and fees paid for if they stay in state, and the Call Me MISTER program, which is designed to increase the percentage of male teachers of color teaching in elementary schools. How do you think recent initiatives undertaken at UIC will help draw more CPS graduates?

Jackson: I believe the two initiatives show a commitment by UIC leadership to try and attract a diverse group of students. The UIC Chancellor’s Fellows Program, which is designed to recruit and retain highly qualified students from Illinois by offering full tuition, will be very attractive to high-achieving CPS graduates, many of whom will be the first in their family to attend college. UIC’s Call Me MISTER program is another initiative that is desperately needed. The program offers students pursuing approved programs of study in urban teacher education the opportunity to receive full tuition, as well as room and board with the aim of teaching in the classroom. With only 2 percent of teachers in American public grade schools being black males, there is a huge need for these male role models in the classroom at CPS, as well as other school districts, and UIC is helping to fill the need.

UIC: As an alumna, please complete the following: The UIC College of Education is…

Jackson: Amazing. I truly owe everything that I am from a leadership perspective to the program. I definitely think I brought many natural attributes there. I was developing nicely prior to going into the UIC programs, but I definitely feel like it strengthened me as a leader. I draw on so many of the things that I learned in both programs every single day in this role as chief executive officer. I would just say that it was an amazing experience, and I made the right choice going to UIC.

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