- Ryan Lowry
- Nancy Hanks at Melody elementary in June. “I’m comfortable in Cambridge, but I’m even more comfortable here in Garfield Park,” she said then.
In June I wrote about Melody elementary, one of Chicago’s countless hypersegregated public schools. The enrollment at Melody, in West Garfield Park, is 98 percent black and 99 percent low-income. The school was on probation because of its test scores, which have been dismal for years. Melody was being consolidated with Delano, another poor, African-American school with dismal test scores.
But Melody had something going for it: a young, energetic, highly regarded principal—Nancy Hanks. She’d gotten a master’s at Harvard in 2009, in a training program designed specifically to produce principals for CPS, and she’d been at Melody for three years, during which time she’d worked hard to set a new tone at the school.
In August, Hanks, 31, let administrators know she was leaving for Madison, where she’d been offered a district-level job as deputy assistant superintendent for elementary schools.
Hanks grew up on the west side and attended public schools—Lewis elementary, Thorp Scholastic Academy, and Whitney Young Magnet High School. “I was born and raised here, so I knew what I was signing up for,” she told me in May, in her small office at Melody.
She talked about the extra tasks for schools in poor neighborhoods. She arranged for visits to Melody by a dentist, and trips for students to a vision clinic. Academically, there was “catch-up work” that had to be done, because children reached school age having been read to and conversed with less than kids from affluent homes. She lamented increases in class size during her three years at Melody because of budget cuts. The job was more difficult for teachers and administrators at schools like Melody, she said, but she enjoyed the challenge. “If that doesn’t motivate you, or if it’s a chore for you, then this isn’t the place or the community for you to be in.”
She felt that her own background—coming from the west side, and becoming a principal at such an early age—made her an inspiration for Melody children. “They say, ‘Oh my God, you grew up where? You went to school where?’ They think, ‘I do know a person from this community that was able to make it.'”
When I asked her if she expected to continue to work in poor communities, she didn’t hesitate: “I would always feel most comfortable in these types of neighborhoods. I’m comfortable in Cambridge, but I’m even more comfortable here in Garfield Park.”
I called Hanks to ask her about her decision to leave Chicago. She responded by e-mail. “A great opportunity presented itself that I thought I could really grow and learn from. You know I am still pretty young, too. I don’t have kids, so it’s easier for me to move around now versus one day when I am more settled.
“I had a great experience leading Melody and I’m proud of the work that we did,” she went on. “That work prepared me to take on this role.”
A spokesperson for CPS told me in an e-mail: “We never like to see talented leaders like Nancy Hanks leave the district. We wish her success in her new role and hope she returns to CPS at some point.” He added that the district’s “extensive professional development, training, and recruiting programs . . . help ensure that we always have a pipeline of qualified leaders ready to replace principals who may move, retire, or leave the district for new opportunities.”
The Madison superintendent who recruited Hanks, Jennifer Cheatham, had herself recently left CPS. Cheatham, 41, who was chief instruction officer here, was named superintendent in Madison in February.
Like Hanks, Cheatham had Harvard training: she’d gotten a doctorate in 2010 in the school’s Urban Superintendents Program. And like Hanks, she was highly regarded. When she was a finalist for the job in Madison, Chicago school board president David Vitale said she was not only knowledgeable but “a great listener” who talked with people “in a way that’s not authoritarian or dictatorial but substantive.” Cheatham had backed the district’s plan to link teacher evaluations to student test scores, which won her no points with the Chicago Teachers Union. But Carol Caref, the CTU’s head of research, conceded in the Wisconsin State Journal that Cheatham was “very knowledgeable and well educated and familiar with issues in education, which can’t be said for some of the CPS administrators who are business people.”
Madison’s schools are wrestling with the challenges facing many urban school districts, especially a big gap between the achievement of its affluent students, who tend to be white, and its lower-income students, who tend to be African-American and Hispanic. But the overall challenges may be less daunting in Madison, where 50 percent of the enrollment is low-income, than in Chicago, where the enrollment is 85 percent low-income.
Earlier this month, Cheatham told a writer for the Isthmus that Madison schools had potential: “It’s not a broken school system, which is different from what I’ve experienced in places like Chicago.”
I called Cheatham, wondering if she’d be willing to elaborate on that comment. I wanted to ask her what she thought was broken in Chicago’s school system, and what had to be done to fix it.
But a spokesperson for the Madison district told me Cheatham didn’t have time to talk about that with me. Instead I got a statement in which Cheatham said she felt “very good” about her work in Chicago, and that CPS, like many districts, still had “challenges to tackle.”