A top Chicago administrator said Thursday night the Madison School Board wouldn’t be taking a risk by hiring her as its next superintendent — even though she’s never been a superintendent before and she has a long career ahead of her.
“People might worry that I will come here and leave,” Jennifer Cheatham told an audience of about 175 at Monona Terrace. “That is absolutely not what I’m about.”
Cheatham, 41, chief of instruction for Chicago Public Schools, answered questions from the public at an hour-long forum and later answered questions for the first time from the media.
She said she isn’t calling for extending the school day in Madison, believes in teacher evaluations that focus on best teacher practices and student growth, and said testing has exposed the achievement gap between minority and majority students.
The School Board immediately went into closed session after the forum and met for two hours. By 10 p.m. Thursday they had not issued a statement.
Attendees interviewed offered generally positive reviews of Cheatham.
Kelly Petrowski, 33, a bilingual education teacher at Elvehjem Elementary School, said Cheatham “knows a ton about education and working in urban districts. My concern is her ability to be a decision-maker. It seems like she was very good at implementing the decisions made by others.”
Mayor Paul Soglin was sold.
“There were a lot of questions about the hiring process and the fact that we were down to one candidate,” he said. “Dr. Cheatham did such a good job that she not only demonstrated her qualifications for the position, but she pushed aside the problems with the process.”
But some continued to question how the School Board could offer her the job without first presenting other candidates to the public.
“I’m sure the School Board is doing some soul searching,” said Leslie Howard, president of the United Way of Dane County. “They will need a very authentic engagement process with the community to overcome concerns.”
Howard called Cheatham's performance Thursday, "a home run."
‘Call me Jen’
On Sunday the board named Cheatham and Springfield, Ill., superintendent Walter Milton Jr. as finalists. But Milton dropped out Tuesday after questions arose about his background.
Cheatham opened the forum asking for a show of hands of how many people had looked her up on the Internet, a reference to the scrutiny she and Milton faced since Sunday.
“If anyone thinks I’m going to require you to call me Dr. Cheatham, don’t worry about that,” she said to laughter. “Call me Jen.”
She had been criticized in Chicago for correcting a parent at a forum who addressed her as Ms. Cheatham, according to news reports.
In Madison, she faced questions about her lack of superintendent experience, her work in Chicago promoting the district’s longer school day initiative, what she thought about standardized tests and how she would close the achievement gap.
“I am not advocating extending the school day in Madison,” she said. “I don’t know enough about what’s happening in Madison to know if that’s the right strategy.”
Cheatham, who was charged with leading the effort, said she disagreed with the decision by Chicago Public Schools officials to extend the school day before consulting the public.
In Madison, she said she would talk with the community about such major decisions first.
She got a laugh by saying she “did not cause the Chicago teacher’s strike” last fall, which was related to the district’s longer school day.
She said every student should be able to go to a neighborhood school, but parents should have the opportunity to send their children to public school alternatives such as charter and magnet schools.
Cheatham also said she would meet regularly with union leaders, and that she endorsed good teacher evaluations. On student testing, she said the results have been valuable because you can track achievement levels and identify gaps but that the federal No Child Left Behind law focused education on math and reading at the expense of other subjects.
Statement of confidence
Cheatham told reporters after the forum that she didn’t have concerns about being the only finalist the community had an opportunity to meet.
“I’m taking it as a statement of their confidence in me,” she said of the board’s decision to hold the forum after Milton, who was also scheduled to attend, withdrew from consideration.
Cheatham said she applied for the job in Madison because she recently decided to look for a superintendent position. Madison “immediately surfaced as the top district” because of its diversity, strong public schools and some of the challenges it faces.
During a tour of La Follette High School earlier in the day, Cheatham asked students and administrators about the district’s weaknesses, said senior Tanner Trickle, a basketball player and honors student who was on the tour. Responses included graduation rates, course offerings and getting students to attend classes, he said.
A scheduled visit to Randall Elementary was canceled because of the snow.
- State Journal reporter Samara Kalk Derby contributed to this report.