Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot today announced that Chiefs for Change Board Chair Pedro Martinez has been selected as CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS). As the third-largest school district in the nation, CPS serves approximately 340,000 students. Martinez currently leads the fastest-improving large school system in Texas, the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD). He will succeed fellow Chiefs for Change board member Janice Jackson as CEO in Chicago. The appointment is a homecoming for Martinez, who grew up in Chicago after moving to the United States from Mexico as a young child. He attended CPS schools and was the district’s chief financial officer from 2003 to 2009 under then-CEO Arne Duncan.
“I grew up in the Pilsen neighborhood on the Lower West Side of Chicago as the oldest of 12 children in my family,” Martinez said. “My dad worked two jobs and never made more than $7 an hour. I know what it’s like to live in poverty. There are a lot of similarities between my life and many of Chicago’s students. My teachers in CPS helped me to have big aspirations and dreams. They changed the trajectory of my future—I became the first in my family to graduate from high school and earn a degree. It truly is the honor of a lifetime to return to my hometown and a district that has meant so much to me. I am grateful to Mayor Lightfoot for entrusting me with this tremendous responsibility, and I will work every day to give all of our children opportunities to achieve their dreams, just as I had.”
When Martinez arrived in San Antonio, the district was an F-rated system. Under his leadership, it improved to become a B-rated system in just three years. During a visit to commend the district on its remarkable gains, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said, “The results we see… in San Antonio [are] proof positive that poverty is not destiny,” noting that 90 percent of the children in SAISD are from families that struggle to get the basic necessities. “They will say that what happened here was a miracle but it is not a miracle,” Morath said during his visit. “It is hard work and it can happen everywhere.”
During Martinez’s tenure, the number of SAISD students attending low-performing schools has decreased by roughly 80 percent. Graduation rates have continued to rise, while dropout rates have continued to fall. SAISD has more students than ever before attending colleges and universities. High school seniors earned a record $130 million in college scholarships, and the district has created innovative partnerships with institutes of higher education to cover tuition and fees for SAISD graduates who otherwise might not have been able to continue their education.
In addition, SAISD has increased the number of students in dual-enrollment programs, allowing them to get college credit while still in high school. It opened career-themed academies and expanded opportunities for students to earn industry recognized credentials in high-growth, in-demand fields such as health care; finance; aerospace and engineering; and cybersecurity. SAISD has also received national attention for its dual-language program, which existed in just two schools when Martinez arrived in San Antonio and has since expanded to 61 campuses, more than half of all SAISD schools.
One of the most significant accomplishments under Martinez was the development of a nuanced way of tracking poverty, a method that has helped to improve student achievement, stem the tide of declining enrollment, and attract more families to the district. It takes into account several socioeconomic indicators for each student, including their family’s income and level of educational attainment, whether the family owns their home, and whether the child lives in a single-parent household. Using that information, the district calculates a ranking for each Census block in the city, maps the level of poverty in each neighborhood, and pinpoints the areas with the greatest need. SAISD then reserves space for children from the poorest neighborhoods at its highest-performing schools. The district also adjusted the way it allocates resources to ensure that children with the greatest needs get appropriate levels of support. Texas adopted SAISD’s socioeconomic block system in what has been called “perhaps the biggest change in the way the state funds schools.”
Another noteworthy program, created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is a master teacher initiative that pairs the most effective teachers with the students who need the most support. Master teachers in SAISD can now earn more than $100,000 per year, compared to the statewide average of $60,000 for teachers with 10 or more years of experience.
Chiefs for Change board member Janice Jackson, who stepped down as CPS CEO in June, said Martinez has the expertise and deep understanding of the Chicago community that is needed to lead the district. “Pedro knows Chicago—our neighborhoods, our families, and our students,” she said. “His heart is here, and he will work tirelessly for the good of our children and the future of our city. We have made a lot of progress in CPS over the last several years. Driven by a commitment to equity, transparency, and the fundamental belief that every child deserves a great education, we’ve made it possible for more students—especially our children of color and those from low-income families—to have opportunities that they simply never had before. Yet there is still so much to do. I’ve always said: The best are with CPS. Our new CEO is just the latest example of that. Pedro is exactly the right leader to build on the work that our community has done together.”
Martinez joined Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education leaders, in 2016. He has served as the group’s board chair since 2019. As chair, Martinez has expanded the network’s federal advocacy efforts. He testified before Congress about the effect of U.S. immigration policies on students and their families, and, in the wake of the pandemic, has urged his colleagues to be bold in their recovery efforts, calling this moment a once-in-a-generation opportunity to dramatically improve education for all children. Martinez has also led the Chiefs for Change push for federal action to support universal broadband. He wrote an op-ed on the subject and has done numerous interviews with the national media. His initiative to provide internet access by connecting students’ homes to schools’ Wi-Fi networks in SAISD is highlighted in the Chiefs for Change brief, SendTheSignal: A Call for Federal Action to End the Digital Divide.
“As long as I’ve known Pedro, he has talked about growing up in Chicago and his time as a student in CPS,” said Chiefs for Change CEO Mike Magee. “I know what the city means to him, and that he will give everything he has to children, families, and staff in the district. Pedro is one of the nation’s most respected and forward-thinking education leaders. He has made an extraordinary difference everywhere he’s worked, and will no doubt do the same when he returns to Chicago. Mayor Lightfoot could not have selected a better CEO for the district.”
Before joining SAISD, Martinez was superintendent in residence for the Nevada Department of Education, where he was responsible for advising the governor’s office and the superintendent of public instruction on education policy decisions. He was also superintendent of the Washoe County School District, which serves Reno, Nev., and the surrounding area. Martinez holds an MBA from DePaul University and a bachelor’s from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
About Chiefs for Change
Chiefs for Change is a nonprofit, bipartisan network of diverse state and district education chiefs dedicated to preparing all students for today’s world and tomorrow’s through deeply committed leadership. Chiefs for Change advocates for policies and practices that are making a difference today for students, and builds a pipeline of talented, diverse Future Chiefs ready to lead major school systems.