Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez smiles during a press conference where he, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady and Ald. Michael Scott (24th) gave an update about COVID-19 infections and protocols in Chicago Public Schools at City Hall in the Loop, Thursday morning, Sept. 30, 2021. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

After his first week on the job, Martinez sat for an interview with Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman.

At the end of his first week leading the district where he spent his childhood, Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez sat for a one-on-one interview with Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman, covering a wide range of topics.

Two of those issues — the district’s plummeting enrollment and his compensation package — have already made headlines. Here is a transcript of the rest of the interview, edited for length:

School communities affected by gun violence

Sun-Times: Days before you started your new job, two students from Simeon high school were killed. Do you plan to visit, and what will you say?

Martinez: I am planning to attend Simeon. I think we all have to just take some time to really reflect on the tragedy of what’s happening right now in our city with violence. I actually had to call another family this week for another death of a 14 year old. It is something that I think we need to address as a community. We need to have these conversations, what is happening in our neighborhoods that’s creating this violence? What are some ways that we can work together, because our children need to feel safe. It’s bad enough that we’re in a global pandemic. But then when you add what’s happening with violence across our different communities, we need to work together to figure out, how do we make things better.

I think one of the advantages right now is our relationship with the city. And so to be able to leverage not only the resources that we have in a district, but to leverage resources across city departments. I want to make sure that I understand what is actually happening in the neighborhoods, because in order for us to have the right solutions, I need to just take a moment and just listen and understand. I’ve been gone 12 years. And I want to make sure that we’re not only investing, but we also make the right investments.

Filling CPS’ leadership ranks

Sun-Times: Nearly the entire upper echelon of the CPS administration followed Janice Jackson out the door when she left as CEO. How do you plan to fill those jobs, internally or externally? And will Dr. Maurice Sweeney stay on as the full time chief education officer?

Martinez: One of the things I am very proud of is we have a lot of talent in the district. A lot of talent at all levels, and I’ve been impressed with Dr. Sweeney. So right now I’m not gonna make any immediate decisions. What I’m really looking for is the skillset, the commitment to the district, making sure they’re in the right seat. So in the next 30, at the most, 60 days, I will make some key decisions on this.

Fixing CTU relationship

Sun-Times: How do you change the toxic relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union, particularly with a mayoral election fast approaching where the mayor herself has said she expects this union to field a candidate against her?

Martinez: We all have to agree that every decision we make has to be in the best interest of our children. … So for example, making sure that we all agree children have to be in school, the best place for them to learn is in person. And yes, we can always debate about making sure that our safety protocols are the strongest possible, there’s always ways to improve. That’s always a conversation I welcome.

But we have to agree, the goal has to be for schools to be open, for children to be in person. And then beyond that, also making sure that we have a strong recovery program for our children, because many of our children did not do too well when they were remote. So if we can start there, I can work with anybody. The challenge for me is when people don’t want to start there, and there’s other agendas, frankly, we’re going to agree to disagree. The way I’m going to take care of my children, I’m gonna support my teachers, I’m gonna make sure that we support our parents and our other staff in the schools. As long as we all agree that that’s where we start, we can work out the details.

Vaccine mandates

Sun-Times: You’re pushing the White House for a federal vaccine mandate for students. Are you open to a local mandate for CPS students only if that doesn’t happen?

Martinez: I think that has to be at least considered. And I would not make that decision by myself. It would have to be really with our medical professionals. But I don’t think this should be done at the local level. It should be at the national level. This is a global pandemic. There should be bold action at the national level. We know from history that vaccines had to be mandated, even seatbelts had to be mandated at the federal level. And I feel that when it’s not done at the national level, it gets so political. And that’s not good for school districts, it’s not good for local cities.

Pandemic college outreach

Sun-Times: One of the unfortunate offshoots of remote learning and the economic hardships of the pandemic, in addition to isolation and mental health challenges among students, is that a lot of students have postponed college. In San Antonio, you partnered with the city to reconnect with graduates to make sure they go to college. How do you plan to do that here?

Martinez: Every city is different. But I would like to make sure that we don’t lose touch with our graduates, especially from the class of 2020. Because that’s the class that I’m worried will be forgotten. Those are the students that delayed college even more. I saw more success with the class of 2021. Class of 2020 is the one that worries me. So that’s actually a conversation that I am going to be having here with our city about what kind of efforts can we look at to make sure we re-engage any student that fell through the cracks in 2020.

Many times we know where those students are at, we still have some information. Getting in touch with them, seeing what they’re doing right now, seeing if they did defer college, helping them with the support so we connect them back into those colleges. So partnering with the community colleges, partnering with the local universities. Stay tuned. There’s a lot of items on my list. But that is one item that I am very concerned about, especially when I saw success in San Antonio.

Sun-Times: But if they delayed college because of finances, which most people do, and the family had hardship during the pandemic, where parents lost jobs, how do you help that kid? Where do you get the money to go?

Martinez: There’s a lot of wealth here in the city of Chicago, there’s a lot of philanthropy. This would be one of my requests for philanthropy. And we know that the community colleges are also a great way for some of our students. They frankly just need a little bit more support, whether it’s financial or academic. So again, there’s options that I think that we can explore.

Special education

Sun-Times: Special education is an area where Janice Jackson fell woefully short. What do you plan to do to right those wrongs?

Martinez: First of all, just to understand what is happening with special ed, looking at what are the challenges around providing services to the children, whether it’s the therapies and other services. And of course, looking at the academic programs. So similar to how we’re going to approach making sure that we have accessible, high quality programs for our children, special ed will be one of my priorities.

Education vs. business background

Sun-Times: Much has been written and said about your not being an educator. Your background is in business. Is that a help or a hindrance?

Martinez: I am always very humbled by the amazing work of our teachers. I just left Darwin elementary school. It’s an amazing school, and I got to observe so many of our teachers. So I’m always amazed by the way they can engage students and the way they can motivate our students. But I’ll say this, the last 12 years that I’ve been gone, all I’ve done is academics. I’ve been the No. 2 in two very large districts. I’ve been a superintendent for nine years. I’ve created school models, designed curriculum. So I will never claim to know everything. I’m always going to be learning, especially when it comes to academics. But I do feel that I have multiple skill sets. And I’m always gonna approach the work in a very humble manner, because again, I am learning. And these issues are very complex.

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