The leading candidate to replace Arne Duncan at the head of the Chicago Public Schools is a longtime teacher and dynamic administrator with the ability to raise test scores, improve faculty morale and turn schools around, say the people who know her well.
Barbara Eason-Watkins is currently the district’s chief education officer, which puts her in charge of the district’s curriculum from pre-kindergarten all the way through high school.
Before that, she spent more than a decade as the principal at McCosh Elementary School -- now called Emmett Till Math & Science Elementary – in Woodlawn. During her time there she was able to unify a physically separated campus and eliminate gang activity, says Mary Rodgers, the school’s current principal.
“She was exceptionally good and she realized that she couldn’t do it all herself, so she surrounded herself with capable people who were able to help her do all those things.”
Eason-Watkins’ career began in Michigan, where she was a teacher at an elementary school in Highland Park. She joined CPS as a principal first at Mollison Elementary in 1985, and then moved to McCosh in 1988.
That background is the kind of thing that appeals to the Chicago Teachers Union, spokeswoman Rosemaria Genova says.
“We would like to see more educators at the Board of Education who have actually worked their way up through the system,” Genova says.
Eason-Watkins would replace Arne Duncan, the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.
President-Elect Barack Obama announced last week that he had selected Duncan to serve as his secretary of education. Duncan has said he will stay at his present position until Obama is sworn in on Jan. 20.
McCosh’s campus, which had primary school students in one building and everyone else in a second unconnected building, meant the faculty was disjointed when Eason-Watkins took over.
The student body today and at the time was nearly 100 percent African-American, and gangs were very active in the surrounding neighborhood, often bringing their disputes into the school’s hallways and classrooms.
“We didn’t know the teachers in the other building, they didn’t know us,” Rodgers says.
However, Eason-Watkins quickly changed that by holding retreats and scheduling faculty teambuilding exercises. The results were rapid and significant, Rodgers says - faculty began talking to one another and coordinating their lesson plans.
As faculty morale got a boost and teachers became more invested in their classrooms, students started taking notice as well and academic performance began to improve.
She just set the tone for building a community where we got to know each other,” Rodgers says.
To tackle the gang problem, Eason-Watkins not only implemented a uniform dress code, but also took an unconventional approach, calling all of the local gang leaders into her office and issuing an ultimatum that gang-related activities were to cease on school grounds.
“What they did outside of school never did come back and confront us here at the school” after that meeting, Rodgers says.
During Eason-Watkins’ tenure, test scores climbed at the school, which now has about 60 percent of its students meeting or exceeding state testing benchmarks in reading, writing and math.
It is that kind of a record of accomplishment that has many educators excited at the prospect of Eason-Watkins that the helm of CPS.
Eason-Watkins would not comment for this article, but her colleagues said she has the qualities needed to be a good schools CEO.
“Barbara is an extremely capable person and we have great admiration for her,” says Tim Cawley, the managing director of the Academy for Urban School Leadership.
“(CTU) President (Marilyn Stewart) knows Barbara, they’ve worked together over the last several years,” Genova says. “Obviously it would be an easy transition for Barbara to step into Arne’s shoes.”
The appointment of Duncan’s successor is ultimately up to Mayor Richard M. Daley. The Board of Education would then vote on the appointment. Daley has not said when he will name a replacement, and CPS officials say Eason-Watkins is not currently granting interviews.
Rodgers says putting Eason-Watkins in the district’s top post would be a “terrific choice.”
“She’s a very dynamic leader, a very fair person. She would let you run as fast as you could go,” Rodgers says. However, on the other side, she adds, “If you were not moving, she would put a spark under you.”
Peter Sachs is a Chicago-based journalist. He covers higher education for the Daily News.