Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins stepping down

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For the past 15 months, Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins
has stood next to her new boss Ron Huberman, often quietly watching his
trademark power points outlining plans to restructure or issue mass
layoffs.

At times, she’s added what she could, usually calmly assuring people,
whether it be principals or reporters, that things won’t change too
much, that the world is not coming to an end.

For the past 15 months, Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins has stood next to her new boss Ron Huberman, often quietly watching his trademark power points outlining plans to restructure or issue mass layoffs.  

At times, she’s added what she could, usually calmly assuring people, whether it be principals or reporters, that things won’t change too much, that the world is not coming to an end.

But when she announced on Tuesday that she plans to leave Chicago Public Schools, with a population of 400,000-plus students, for Indiana’s tiny Michigan City School District with a mere 7,000 students, it was no surprise. The 57-year-old Eason-Watkins has been with CPS for 35 years, serving the last nine as chief education officer.

Though it is unclear whether Eason-Watkins wanted to be named CEO when Arne Duncan became U.S. Secretary of Education, many had thought she would be in line for the job. Then, when Mayor Richard M. Daley announced that he was giving the job to Huberman, a bureaucrat with a business background, there was speculation that Eason-Watkins wasn’t going to stay around for long.

And Eason-Watkins acknowledged Tuesday that she started laying the ground work for making the move last summer when she was at her second home in Michigan City and heard the superintendent there was leaving.

Yet those left at CPS shuddered at the news. Among top level CPS officials, only Chief Administrative Officer Robert Runcie is a hold-over from Duncan.

Also, Eason-Watkins’ departure comes in the midst of a difficult time for CPS. Over the past year, Huberman has eliminated more than 800 jobs. He has promised another 200 layoffs by the end of the fiscal year and he might need to make additional cuts to fill a projected $600 million deficit.

At Emmett Till Elementary School in Woodlawn, where Eason-Watkins made a name for herself as a no-nonsense but highly collaborative educational leader, the mood was one of shock and fear.

“I am really hurt,” said current Principal Mary L. Rodgers, who was assistant principal under Watkins.

Not only was working with Eason-Watkins a “treat,” but Rodgers added that, with so many layoffs in central office and so many new staff, she depended on Eason-Watkins to hold the line.

“I looked to her to keep stability in the system, to keep the education level stable. It is hard to fathom,” Rodgers said.

Education experts are keeping an eye on how Eason-Watkins’ departure will play into Huberman’s overall strategy. Penny Bender Sebring, a director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, said Watkins was a “champion for great instruction” and that her loss will be great.

Sebring declined to speculate about who will be the next chief education officer, but that person’s role will be different from that of Eason-Watkins. Huberman is moving much of the instructional guidance to the area offices, giving each chief a portfolio of schools to be responsible for.

Sebring said that structure can work, but research has shown that different schools need different levels of support, and it is unclear if Huberman’s model will accomplish that.

Sebring mused that Michigan City is lucky to get Eason-Watkins. The town is a vacation spot for many Chicagoans, but Michigan City’s perform below the state’s average.

At a press conference on a new financial literacy program being piloted at 12 CPS high schools, Eason-Watkins said she was excited about her new job.

She refused to direct any criticism at Huberman and didn’t blame him for her leaving. Integrating business principles into teaching and learning is an opportunity, she said. And she added that she keeps in touch with a lot of the staff that have been pushed out or laid off, so watching them leave has not been that difficult.

Asked whether she would be leaving if Duncan was still around, she responded, “That’s hard to say.”

Huberman said he has yet to decide on a search process for the next chief education officer.