The night that LaTanya McDade, the current chief education officer of Chicago Public Schools, was announced as the next superintendent of Prince William County Public Schools, the praise began pouring in.
Superintendents from school divisions in Indianapolis, Baltimore and elsewhere talked about a friend and educator they saw as prepared to take on the job of leading a large school division such as Prince William’s with enrollment of over 90,000 students. Even former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered congratulations and praise.
In Chicago, Superintendent Janice Jackson told families in a letter that she would be sad to see McDade go.
“In the past year she has faced challenges experienced by no prior Chief Education Officer, leading the district’s efforts to re-imagine student learning and offer the best possible instruction during the pandemic,” Jackson wrote. “I could not be more appreciative of her contributions to our schools, and I am proud she has earned this well-deserved opportunity.”
Talking with the media after her announcement March 24, McDade made multiple references to her educational philosophy, starting with individual schools, classrooms and teachers. In particular, she said, when it comes to a diverse school division in a big area like Prince William – where circumstances can vary widely from district to district and school to school – it’s crucial to focus not on a general approach but on ensuring each school has the individualized resources it needs.
In that regard, she said, she will lean on her experience for more than a decade working in school buildings in Chicago, first as a middle school teacher and then as an assistant principal and principal.
“Chicago is one of the [most] diverse cities in the nation and we have schools where in one school over 36 languages are spoken, and that’s similar to what we’re seeing right here in Prince William,” McDade said. “Every single school has to have the support, resources and the staff to meet the needs of every individual student … at the local level, that’s where the work really happens. The magic happens in the classroom. So our job as a division is to make sure that our teachers have what they need.”
Prince William School Board Chair Babur Lateef also said that the board was impressed with McDade’s role as a public face for the Chicago system in response to pandemic changes. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the school district have been involved in a high-profile battle with the city’s teacher’s union over plans to return students to some in-person learning. Currently, Chicago’s high-schoolers remain entirely virtual with no certain date yet agreed upon for their return to classrooms.
According to Lateef, McDade has remained out of the public fray but has instead played an important role in preparing the schools logistically for reopening, whenever it comes. Part of her job has been to hire additional substitute teachers – a need that Prince William has faced this year – and other staff. She has overseen the hiring of nearly 2,000 additional support staff members and substitutes.
McDade has told local Chicago media that hearing from families about what kind of academic support students will need as well as how to make them comfortable sending students back is most important.
“What does the hybrid model look like in high school? What does it look like to have a phased approach in terms of who we bring back when? All of these things are topics of discussion,” McDade told CBS2 Chicago last month. “The most important thing with the high school piece that we want to make sure that we do is hear from parents, hear from students.”
Mike Magee is the CEO of Chiefs for Change, an education nonprofit that supports almost 40 large urban school divisions across the country, including Chicago’s. The organization also runs a year-long “Future Chiefs” initiative in which McDade participated, where administrators identified as being on track to head school divisions learn about leadership skills and common challenges facing large school systems.
Magee described McDade’s educational philosophy as being centered on a challenging and engaging curriculum for students. Under McDade’s leadership, Chicago has built the biggest international baccalaureate curriculum in the country and dramatically increased advanced placement offerings.
“The research is super clear that all students benefit from engaging with challenging, culturally relevant academic content. And we have a systemic problem in the U.S. where black and brown children routinely have received content below grade level, not based on aptitude, but presumptions about what they can handle,” Magee told InsideNoVa. “And so, systematically, making sure that all children have access to challenging content is a really important part of any academic strategy.”
Magee said Chicago’s schools have become a leader in early monitoring for students at risk of dropping out and not graduating. The division has seen dramatic gains in its graduation rate over the past decade, improving from 55.8% in 2010 to 82.5% in 2020.
“When we’re talking about equity in school systems, there’s a tendency often for communities to think about learning as a zero-sum game, meaning if you give it to some student, you’re taking it away from another,” Magee said. “LaTanya knows that it isn’t a zero-sum game … and that you have to make the case that equity is for the common good, that everybody benefits from it.”
While McDade said that Prince William as a division will be tasked with meeting the individualized needs of schools and students, she said she personally understands that she has to maintain a fairly high-level vantage point when overseeing the division. When she starts in June, she wants to go by two titles: superintendent and CEO.
“You can get mired in the day-to-day operational work. My heart is in education, and I wanted to make sure, working with the [school] board, that instructional leadership is the top priority,” McDade said. “That’s why I asked to be defined as Chief Executive Officer because there is an operating arm that exists, but the education part has to be prominent in that. … First and foremost we’re an educational institution and it is my job to be an instructional leader while also still having the business acumen of a CEO.”