He's patrolled the streets of Chicago, kept the local trains running on time and become a player in the highest echelons of City Hall. But at age 38, Ron Huberman—born in Israel and raised just outside of Chicago—is facing his most formidable challenge.
The new Chicago Public Schools CEO, who took over from Arne Duncan after President Obama tapped Duncan to lead the U.S. Department of Education, has spent his first year on the $225,000-a-year job addressing a daunting landscape of inner-city violence that students can encounter simply by walking to school. Huberman is the third CEO appointed by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley since he took over CPS—the country's third-largest school district—in 1995.
The first was Paul Vallas, who is best known for rebuilding the sprawling school system's physical infrastructure. Duncan's legacy includes Renaissance 2010, a project he designed with Daley to replace 100 low-performing schools by this year with newly constituted "turnaround" schools and a large number of brand-new charters.
Huberman prepped for his seven-year run, starting in 2001, by serving as Vallas' chief of staff . Now it's Huberman's turn to lead the district's more than 400,000 students and 23,000 teachers. "Chicagoans know Ron to be a devoted public servant who can accomplish any task he is given," Daley declared in January 2009, announcing the appointment of Huberman. "My experiences with the Chicago Transit Authority and as the mayor's chief of staff had difficult fiscal challenges and challenges around performance, and they let me implement complex management solutions," he says. "They were great grounds to learn what works and doesn't work in large organizations."
Huberman was born in 1971 in Israel to parents who had survived the Holocaust, moving to Tennessee and then to the suburbs of Chicago, as his father, a cancer researcher, changed jobs. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Huberman joined the Chicago Police Department, where he worked as a beat cop and gang specialist before moving into administration. "I was looking for a different kind of experience and loved public service, where I could give back," Huberman says of his career decision. "And nothing could be more interesting then being a beat officer."
While working for the police department, he added to his public service credentials with a master's degree in business and social service administration from the University of Chicago. He then served as the mayor's chief of staff and head of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), where he spent almost two years before starting at CPS. At the CTA, Huberman often took the train to work and was known occasionally to remove unruly passengers by himself.
At CPS, Huberman hit the ground running with a flurry of initiatives, none so urgent and nationally publicized as his extensive plan for school security and student safety, which will use $30 million in federal stimulus funds over the next three years and draws heavily on the new CEO's background.
"My years as a police officer, viewing the world from the streets of Chicago, gave me a very good lens on the challenges our students face," he says. "On a very fundamental level, the issues of violence and how it affects communities and schools hasn't changed that much since then."
Michael Shields, the district's director of security, says the city's nearly 300 street gangs and 10,000 gang members—many of whom are enrolled in Chicago's schools—represent a longstanding problem. "Many of these gangs, especially the larger ones, have been in this city for 50 years," says Shields, who is a 22-year police veteran who rose to the rank of deputy superintendent of Chicago's police department before he was hired as security director. "We're talking about third- and fourth-generation members. It's part of the fabric of this city, and it's something we're trying to overcome. Ron has an excellent grasp of how gangs impact schools on the outside and inside."
Shields, who emphasizes that Chicago's schools themselves are generally safe, says the district has been keeping track of casualties to its students outside of school for more than two years. In the 2007-2008 school year, 23 students were killed on Chicago's streets, while 211 were shot. The number of student deaths rose to 34 in 2008-2009, when there were a record 290 shootings.
A Safety Plan Takes Shape
But one particular attack brought the city's problem to national attention. Last September, an honors student on his way home from Christian Fenger Academy High School on Chicago's tough South Side was bludgeoned to death by a group of young men.
The attack was captured on cell phone videos for a shocked country to witness. Kenyatta Stansberry, the principal of William Rainey Harper High School, which also is located on the South Side, says that particular crime has also left its mark locally. "Parents are speaking up more. They're very fearful," she says. "And we have more parents picking up and dropping off kids than ever before." "It put the spotlight on what we had set out to do, and it underscored the need for the program that Ron was pushing," Shields adds.
That program, which is still a work in progress, has developed over the past year through a series of meetings among central office officials, local school administrators, and the Chicago Police Department. It includes intensive mentoring for CPS students at the greatest risk of being shot; greater police presence on routes to schools in dangerous areas; an upgrade of the security forces in school buildings; and increased cooperation between CPS, individual schools, and the Chicago police.
Huberman and his staff began by crunching data on all CPS students who had been shot over the past five years. Among their common attributes were little hope of passing their courses or graduating, a school absence rate that averaged 42 percent, and an eight-times greater likelihood than other students to act violently in school. School principals referred more than 10,000 students who fit most of the criteria to Huberman's office, where the number was winnowed to 250 in the "ultra-high-risk" category.
According to Huberman's statistical analysis, the members of this cohort stand a greater than 20 percent chance of getting shot during their high school careers. "They're so far behind in the basic skills that they don't have building blocks and have no meaningful adult relationships," Huberman explains. "And in many cases, we haven't been utilizing the interventions that these student need."
One primary intervention the district will deploy for the highest-risk students is dubbed YAP, for Youth Advocate Programs, the Pennsylvania-based nonprofit running it. This 35-year-old group offers programs in 25 American cities, ranging from gang interventions to juvenile justice alternatives outside of prison. Chicago's YAP is recruiting and training an army of full-time adult mentors from the neighborhoods surrounding troubled schools and deploying them throughout the winter.
These mentors will be assigned permanently to the 250 ultra-high-risk teenagers at the 38 high schools (of the 89 in Chicago) that most attend, and at a 1-to-4 mentor-to-student ratio.
The new mentors will provide daily attention, counseling, and conflict-resolution help to their charges, as well as addressing any gang-related issues and making themselves available after school hours. The students will also be placed in part-time jobs to keep them from hitting the streets after school. The 10,000 or so other identified students will receive less intensive mentoring and attend programs during school on improving attendance and behavior.
Stansberry, who referred 15 of her own ultra-high-risk students to the new program, believes YAP can work. "If each principal in each school implements the program with fidelity," she suggests," it will make a big difference." That fidelity means, Stansberry says, making sure that the assigned mentor relates well to the student, follows up on any problems, and communicates with school officials when he or she can't solve a problem.
Culture of Calm
The district also is promoting a "culture of calm" at the 38 targeted high schools. "We've done data crunching to identify the schools that have an effective culture and which we can replicate in schools that need it," says Huberman. "If we don't get that right, all our efforts in curriculum and professional development aren't going to come out the way we want."
In schools that effectively promote calm, according to Huberman, adults and students show each other greater respect—which manifests itself in fewer fights between kids and better listening by them in the classroom. In addition, students do not wander the hallways when they should be in class, and there's a clear ethic of hard work.
Huberman plans on having teachers and administrators from these schools provide training at the 38 high schools identified as needing to change their culture. The latter schools are gaining additional counselors and social workers as well.
Security Director Shields is also looking to hire more responsive security personnel for Chicago's schools. "Outside of teachers, they're the people that students come in contact with," he reasons. "We're looking to hire security guards who like kids and young people, and it's a reality that that's not who always comes into this job." Shields continues: "A big part of what we're doing now is opening lines of communication with the police department. The police provide us with information on areas where shootings occur around schools."
He adds that the schools in turn are keeping the police apprised of brewing conflicts on campus. "We know that what goes on in school can spill out into the streets." "We also realize that our young people have to meander through gang territory to get to their schools," Shields notes, "and there's regular communication between principals and the police department to cover the hot spots."
Just before and after the school day, he explains, police and community volunteers have increased their presence along student walking routes, with particular attention to any crossroads between different gang territories.
The Chief Data Processor
Beyond security, Huberman also points to other initiatives that he's laid out during his first 18 months on the job, most of them driven by the data on which he depends. "I'm accused all the time of being a data guy," he admits. "Arne Duncan invested heavily in technology, so there was a mountain of data here."
Huberman is using that data—and has created a senior staff position—in order to enforce performance management throughout the district. In the central office, Huberman and his performance management team are holding a dozen departments, from human resources and after-school programs to procurement and facilities, to meet their operational goals.
On the school level, the district looks hard at data, from absence rates and test results to teacher and administrator effectiveness. "What performance management at the most fundamental level should answer is how we are doing as a district, school, teacher, and student," Huberman insists.
Timothy Knowles, who directs the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, says of Huberman, "He's pushing hard for data from each of the units in the central offices, and he's pushing as hard on schools and school leaders. It's aggressive and, in my opinion, appropriate."
Along those lines, Huberman has replaced the almost two dozen instructional officers, who were spread out across the city to supervise the schools in their particular geographical area, with new supervisors who have dual backgrounds in education and management. "We've also grounded them in performance management data," Huberman emphasizes. "Every Friday we analyze what's working and not working in their schools."
"He's collapsed the distance between the CEO's office and the schoolhouse," Knowles says, referring to the weekly meetings Huberman holds with the performance management group. "They'll get really engaged in looking at the metrics that lead to action steps."
One step has involved frequent and targeted assessments of student progress. "Let's say you're teaching decimals to 30 third-graders," Huberman explains. "They take an assessment that shows 22 have mastered decimals. The question for the principal and teacher is, 'What's the plan for those eight remaining kids?'"
The answer, Huberman continues, could mean remedial work, after-school tutorials, or whatever effective intervention the school develops, with the added benefit that increased success of students can also put them at less risk for violence. "I agree with that approach," Stansberry says. She adds that Huberman "has a laserlike focus on results, and we in the schools have to be accountable."
In return for accountability, Huberman is giving principals more decision-making authority over their budgets and staffing. This is part of his attempt to decentralize resources in categories ranging from transportation and food services to academic tutoring and school security. "It's hard to say to a principal, 'You're fully accountable but you can't pick your teachers, coaches, social workers, or nurses,' " he says.
Huberman was not the first pick of a number of Chicagoans, including Duncan, who recommended Barbara Eason-Watkins, the district's chief education officer whom Duncan hired in 2001 and who continues in that capacity. Even Jesse Jackson publicly panned Huberman's appointment. "There was not a lot of enthusiasm throughout the city," recalls Julie Woestehoff, the executive director for the advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE). "People were fed up with the idea of CEOs not having an education background. We were clearly not getting anybody who was a more sophisticated educator than the person before. Barbara was a proven educator and people trusted her and had seen her working."
Meanwhile, Woestehoff questions whether Huberman's data-driven approach tells the whole story of Chicago's schools. "I have the impression that he's too concerned about a narrow set of data and that he doesn't have enough educational background for making complex educational decisions," she says. "He's looking at a very small slice of information and changing people's lives because of it." Huberman has also had to cope with an almost $500 million deficit to the nearly $6 billion CPS budget this year and a projected $900 million shortfall next year.
"The big challenge is financial," says the University of Chicago's Knowles. "He's managing a very aggressive agenda with significantly reduced resources." But Woestehoff does like Huberman's security approach and lauds Huberman's efforts to implement YAP. "One of our concerns is the kids who fall through the cracks," she says. "He seems interested in them."
And, of course, Duncan—whose educational star has risen higher with his appointment to the Obama Cabinet—is a hard act to follow. Huberman stays in regular touch with Duncan and solicits advice on a wide range of topics. "Arne just gives very good counsel. He's a very grounded individual, and he's thought a lot about these issues," Huberman says. "And it's a wonderful thing to be able to call the secretary of education."
With Huberman a year into his job, even critics see encouraging signs. Faced with closing 22 underperforming schools that would have rounded out the 100 closures stipulated by Duncan's Renaissance 2010 plan, Huberman opted to spare some, after reviewing cases presented by teachers and neighborhood residents."He took six schools off the closure list," Woestehoff notes. "People are not fully satisfied, but at least he was paying some attention to the information that was coming from the community."
Huberman also won early points last summer in limiting budget-driven layoffs to 1,000 job cuts in the central office rather than firing teachers. Along the way, he has been building a consensus that, despite any early misgivings, he may just be the best person for the job. "He's going to take the district to the next level," predicts Harper High's Stansberry. "This is the right time for Ron Huberman."