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Emanuel needs bold schools pick

Updated: April 15, 2011 9:46AM

Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel’s pick for Chicago Public Schools CEO will be his signature appointment. Emanuel wants a permanent schools honcho in place by his May 16 inauguration. Public education sits at ground zero of the treacherous web of Chicago’s challenges and promise. The fate of public education is inextricably linked with thorny issues like community violence, public safety, jobs and economic development.

The new schools chief will wrestle with a plethora of bitter pills: a growing financial crisis; calls for more charter schools and voucher initiatives; a surly and militant teachers union; scandalous dropout rates, and vacillating academic standards.

Who is the right kind of leader for Chicago’s schools right now?

I am no education expert, but I know whom to call. My “go-to’s” on the schools, Linda Lenz and Bill Ayers, are an odd couple, but wise in the ways of public education.

Lenz, who has been covering the schools for decades, says the system needs a CEO who lives and breathes education. “To be effective, you have to ‘get’ education within your core,” said the longtime publisher of Catalyst, the city’s premier schools watchdog.

A successful leader in urban education must be a triple threat, Lenz argues: 1) he or she must understand education and how schools operate; 2) be adept at moving an organization toward a goal, and 3) and “communicate and resonate” with the key players: grass-roots activists, parents and students, teachers and the business community.

There won’t be major new resources at hand, Lenz notes. The recession and government budget shortfalls around the nation mean the Chicago school system has to work with what it’s got. CPS leadership should be adept at “getting people working more smartly together,” she said.

Interim schools CEO Terry Mazany says he has no plans to stay, and Emanuel has been mum on whether he would keep him around. Last week Mazany was uncharacteristically vocal about the mess he inherited from his predecessor and rolled out a turnaround plan to rescue a school system that, he said, had been “in free fall.”

“I was surprised at how forthright he was,” Lenz said.

Perhaps too much for his own good.

Bill Ayers is one who never holds back. The newly retired professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago is a passionate advocate of community-centric schools and is lionized by education progressives around the nation.

Last week, Ayers was in Cyprus teaching an oral history seminar, but he weighed in on the superintendent debate by e-mail. He agrees that Chicago needs an inside-out leader, one “who could organize or teach a productive second grade.”

Who can do it? Ayers thinks Mazany “has been surprisingly good, willing on occasion to tell his downtown enablers that they are wrong.” He is also high on Charles Payne, the University of Chicago scholar who is helping Mazany devise an interim education plan, and Kevin Kumashiro, director of the Center for Anti-Oppressive Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Lenz notes more mainstream possibilities such as Robert Runcie, a top CPS administrator and former businessman; Arthur Culver, the schools superintendent in Champaign, and Jose Torres, a superintendent in the Elgin district.

Ayers, the erstwhile ’60s radical, argues it would be “astonishing and a bit revolutionary to have a leader who understood what it might mean concretely for Jason and Hector and Mari in Ms. Henderson’s classroom.” That knowledge has “implications for all our kids.”

Emanuel, bring it on. We have tried everything else. Why not a revolution?

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