Choosing Chicago’s next schools CEO: Peter Gorman, Barbara Eason-Watkins

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Catalyst Chicago is asking readers to submit names of candidates they believe would be a good pick to run the Chicago Public Schools. In the coming weeks, we’ll post short profiles of these candidates, and others who might be in the running. We’re inviting other readers to share their views in our “Comments” section below.

Catalyst Chicago is asking readers to submit names of candidates they believe would be a good pick to run the Chicago Public Schools. In the coming weeks, we’ll post short profiles of these candidates, and others who might be in the running. We’re inviting other readers to share their views in our “Comments” section below.


Peter Gorman, superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Experience: Peter Gorman started out as a teacher and then rose to being a principal. In 2001, he got his first superintendent’s job, serving in Tustin Unified Schools in California. In 2004, he participated in the Broad Superintendents Academy, a 10-month training program. He became superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina Schools in 2006.

Why he’s a good choice: In October, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools won $250,000 from the Broad Foundation for being one of the top five large districts that raised achievement for poor children of color. This award was partly the result of Gorman’s Strategic Staffing Initiative, which aimed to lure high performing principals to low-performing schools by offering them bonuses. The principals were also given the leeway to fire five teachers and given first priority for new technology, staffing and programs. Last year, a New York Times article lauded the program, saying it “shows that teachers will often respond to talented new leadership and that it is not always necessary to take wrenching steps like shutting down a school or replacing the entire staff. The program also shows that — with creativity and the right incentives — districts can build the capacity to reclaim failing schools.” Gorman has committed to expanding the program to teachers by 2014.

However, Gorman has come under sharp criticism in recent months following his announcement that he would close 10 schools, all of them serving low-income, minority students. The U.S. Department of Education is investigating complaints that these closures constitute a civil rights violation. Gorman says the decisions were made based on under-enrollment and poor academics. Gorman also upset the Charlotte-Mecklenburg teachers union by making layoffs but at the same time, signing a contract to hire participants in Teach for America.

Why Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel might select him—or not: Chicago Public Schools is quite a bit bigger than Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which has just 137,000 students.  Gorman also might have some trouble transitioning from the polite Southern town of Charlotte to the gritty politics of Chicago.

But Emanuel has also proposed paying bonuses to principals and might like Gorman’s success in convincing the best principals to go to the worst schools. Bringing a similar plan to CPS would be a way to accomplish the same goals as a turnaround—revitalizing a school—without replacing the entire staffs, which nearly always puts communities on edge. Gorman also is no stranger to controversial decisions, such as closing schools and laying off teachers—two things he would most likely have to do here.


Barbara Eason-Watkins, former CPS chief education officer

Experience: Barbara Eason-Watkins is currently superintendent of the Michigan City, Ind., school system. She took that post in spring 2010 after 35 years in the CPS system, including more than a decade as a principal and nine years as the district’s chief education officer.

Why she’s a good choice: As principal of McCosh Elementary School on the South Side, she was well-regarded. In 1997, Chicago Magazine named her one of its Chicagoans of the Year.

As chief education officer, she was seen as the driving force behind many of former CEO Arne Duncan’s education policies. She created area instructional officers—the precursors to the current chief area officers—and charged them with coaching and overseeing groups of high school and elementary school principals. She’s a respected leader with extensive knowledge of the CPS system. Eason-Watkins has a strong background in curriculum and instruction.

Why Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel might select her—or not: Few have bad things to say about Eason-Watkins. The appointment of an educator with her level of experience would please some segments of Chicago’s education community. But at this point, Emanuel probably wants a new face, someone who will champion initiatives such as charter schools and turnarounds.


Previous profiles:

Terry Mazany, interim CEO Chicago Public Schools


Robert Runcie, Chief Area Officer


Timothy Knowles, University of Chicago, Urban Education Institute


John White, New York City Schools Deputy Chancellor


Jose Torres, Elgin School Superintendent


Jo Anderson, Jr. , senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan


Andres Alonso, CEO, Baltimore City Schools


Yvonne Brandon,superintendent, Richmond, Va., public schools


Donald Feinstein,executive director, Academy for Urban School Leadership


Diane Ravitch, education historian and author 

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor, Washington, D.C. Public Schools

Who is your pick? Take our survey.