Meet the Mom Who's Taking on Chicago Public Schools

By Casey Cora on December 12, 2012 8:31am | Updated on December 12, 2012 9:51am

CHICAGO — As a systems analyst and researcher, Jeanne Marie Olson has spent most of her career helping nonprofits, corporations and government entities “figure out what their misalignment is.”

“There are top-brass beliefs about what’s happening lower down ... but if you walk into offices and retail stores and the shop floor you really find out what’s not happening and it’s causing big problems,” she said.

Now, the North Park mother of two has turned her focus to the bureaucracy of Chicago Public Schools — with its 40,000 employees and 404,000 students — and she said she’s letting data, not emotions, tell the story.

“It’s not good or bad. I think [CPS is] just really a huge, unwieldy organization, and it’s really hard to know what’s going on at the local level,” she said.

Olson, 46, teamed up with the citizen advocacy group Raise Your Hand this summer after noticing the “civil tone” of the group’s members after a dust-up that played out over Facebook with Ald. Joe Moore (49th).

Before that, she'd embarked on her own data-driven project to find the city's best neighborhood schools, the ones she said have been passed over on annual best schools lists because they're populated with "lower income, more diverse kids starting at lowest testing abilities."

Among other roles, Olson is an acclaimed researcher and designer who lectures on learning and organizational change at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy. She’s lending her analytic chops to help Raise Your Hand refute what they say is bad information from CPS.

And she’s started strong.

Last week, CPS dropped a big set of data showing the "utilization" of 685 buildings across the city, raising more questions about which schools soon will be targeted for closure.

CPS head Barbara Byrd-Bennett recently formed a nine-member panel, the Commission on School Utilization, "charged with leading a community engagement process and gathering information by launching a rigorous, transparent and open dialogue with school communities over the next several months."

But the district's figures ran counter to what Olson had seen in her own analysis, which has morphed into the “Apples to Apples” data project that suggests CPS used a flawed formula to calculate its findings and overshot by 24 percent the number of underutilized schools. It also suggests school overcrowding was underreported.

Schools spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said Olson's "methodology is not clear, so we can't do a straightforward analysis, but the work of the commission is designed to help us right size the district, and no matter how you cut it, we have more than 100,000 empty seats in our schools. We must address this, as it's spreading our limited resources too thin."

Olson has put her project and methodology online, a nod to the old nagging math teacher mandate for students to show their work. The project is open for scrutiny and feedback.

“It’s not sneaky. It’s all out there,” she said. “If we’re getting it wrong, tell us how to get it right.”

Outside of a Twitter exchange with Jimm Dispensa, CPS senior manager of business operations, Olson hasn’t heard from CPS officials about her findings. But she said even back-and-forth on Twitter — cataloged via Storify on Center Square Journal — is a good start.

“Here’s somebody from CPS who could’ve ignored me and not giving me the time of day. Great. Fabulous. If you ignore me we can’t have a dialogue,” she said.

Wendy Katten, executive director of Raise Your Hand, said Olson has been instrumental in shedding light on otherwise dark corners of school data.

“It’s one of-a-kind information. She’s giving us a real picture of what’s happening at our schools that we didn’t have before. To have parents like Jeanne, and so many others willing to do this, it’s huge,” she said.

Olson, who's daughter attends a North Side elementary neighborhood school, said she hopes she's making a small, but snowballing, change.

"I believe in systems theory ... that my intersection will change three more things down the road," she said. "I don’t have to change everything."

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