Jennifer Cheatham has never served as a school superintendent, but as a high-ranking administrator for Chicago Public Schools she has battled for some of the system's biggest and most controversial changes of recent years.
Cheatham, chief of instruction for the 400,000-student school district since 2011, spearheaded new standards for literacy and math achievement, a longer school day and hotly contested methods for tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.
Along the way, the policies she championed angered parents and teachers, but even her opponents compliment her for hard work, a solid grasp of policy and a civil manner.
"She's 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," said Carol Caref, head of research for the Chicago Teachers Union. "But she has chosen to stand with those who are promoting so-called reforms that go against what the research says is best."
Cheatham didn't respond to interview requests Monday, but Chicago School Board President David Vitale said she led planning of the district's big classroom policy initiatives last year. She was in charge of a series of listening sessions for parents unhappy with proposals to lengthen the school day, Vitale said, and she sat at the table during tough negotiations with the teachers union, which went on strike for more than a week before a settlement was reached.
"Her knowledge is first rate," Vitale said. "But what I liked about Jen is that she had a great manner about her. She's a great listener, she doesn't turn people off. She presents to them in a way that's not authoritarian or dictatorial but substantive."
Cheatham earned her bachelor's degree in English from DePaul University in Chicago in 1993 and obtained advanced degrees in education from the University of Michigan and Harvard University, where in 2010 she was awarded a doctorate in the Urban Superintendents Program.
She taught 8th grade language arts and mentored other teachers in Newark, Calif., from 1997 to 2003, and from 2001 to 2009 she worked as a coordinator, coach and manager in efforts to improve teacher training and school curriculums in Newark, San Francisco and San Diego.
Cheatham joined the Chicago district as manager of 25 kindergarten through 8th grade schools on the city's near south and west sides and was promoted in July of 2011 to her current post, in which she reports directly to the district's chief executive officer.
The district's website lists her annual pay at $175,000, less than the $201,437 paid to Dan Nerad, who resigned as Madison superintendent to become top administrator of the school district in Birmingham, Mich.
Breeding ground for leaders
In Chicago, the teachers union research director said she regularly sent Cheatham studies to support her position against tying teacher evaluations to standardized tests and giving students dozens of hours of assessment tests each year.
"I just feel like she knows it can't be good for kids to have all these assessments, but she's chosen to be on that side in Chicago Public Schools," Caref said.
The school board president said the teachers union will never be happy.
"Our union will always think anything our administration is doing is the wrong policy," Vitale said.
The school district compromised a little on the length of the school day. The proportion of evaluations based on assessment tests is less than originally proposed, and changes are being implemented gradually, Vitale said.
"Jen will be the third person in the last two years from our administration who I've been a reference for who has taken over a fairly significant school district," Vitale said. "Chicago is a pretty good breeding place for leaders."