Oliver Sicat has faced a few challenges since he was handpicked to be Chief Portfolio Officer of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) one year ago. But the road is rarely smooth when you are a true education change agent.
Sicat (BS ’01) is charged with giving every student in the district the opportunity to attend a high quality school. To meet this objective, 20 of the lowest performing schools in the district were closed down or turned around and 12 new schools were authorized in the last year, amid protest from some members of the community. He has one of the toughest jobs, but also one of the most critical to educational equity.
The son of hardworking Filipino immigrants, Sicat grew up poor in Santa Ana and learned firsthand how some communities were excluded from high quality public education. “My parents didn’t have any means, go to college, or know the language, but they believed that education would be my ticket to the American Dream,” Sicat said. “We had to go to church to get milk and butter and other sustenance, but they finagled a way for me to get into the Irvine school system because they knew that where you lived determined the quality of education you got.” This is something Sicat and his colleagues are trying to change in CPS.
“We’re trying to give great school options to every student and remove inequities in the community based on income and race,” he said. In addition to the political heat involved in school turnarounds, Sicat and the newly created team have high achievement goals for students in the district’s 670 schools.
Currently, CPS students score four points below the national average on the ACT, and have a graduation rate of 57.5 percent. Sicat says CPS aims to close that achievement gap and raise the graduation rate to 75 percent.
Despite his parents’ ability to navigate the system to improve the quality of his education, Sicat didn’t have any direction when it came to higher education. “I went to a school with 3,000 students and didn’t talk to the guidance counselor until the day of my graduation,” he said. “My parents had no idea how to get me into college, so they saved up $1,000 for a private service to help me.” Those services turned out to be a scam, but Sicat managed to transfer to USC in the middle of freshman year as a business major. USC ignited his entrepreneurial spirit, and helped him build confidence in the face of challenge. He and a friend started a USC-branded antennae ball business, and the Trojan Bookstore became their first contract.
One day, the young business major was leafing through a career resource book on campus when he was struck with the desire to help other first generation kids get to college. He reflected on one of his most inspirational mentors, his elementary school principal, Gene Bedley, and realized his fate was in education.
“My experience at ’SC was phenomenal, and I felt completely ready for the first day of class in a tough urban environment, and that was amazing,” Sicat said. “When people bash schools of education, I tell them that I’ve had a counter experience.”
Sicat went on to Harvard, where he received $100,000 in seed money to start the non-profit Emagine, an afterschool program in Boston. He also taught math, and was named 2006 Teacher of the Year in Boston Public Schools. That same year, he was recruited to become the founding principal of UIC College Prep, building its first high school – Noble Street Charter School – from the ground up. The charter opened in 2008, and in 2011, became the highest performing non-selective school among Chicago’s 118 high schools.
“One theme that has stuck with me is the ability to make positive multigenerational change – through a company, school system or nonprofit – that creates change after I’m gone,” Sicat said. “Now I’m trying to have the same impact at CPS.” So far, Sicat and his team have made great strides. In addition to turning around dozens of schools, CPS is creating a single application process for the whole district, eliminating the different rules and mounds of paperwork parents must navigate to get their kids into a good school.
He said he has also learned many things in the last year that he hopes will help him facilitate change more easily in the coming year. “We came in with a sense of urgency and moved kids out of low-performing schools, and we’re glad we did that,” he said. “But a year later, we better understand how to work with the communities with respect. If we can collaborate better, be transparent, and see that we’re all trying to reach the same goals, the noise or pushback will always be there – but at least people will understand our intent. We’re getting better at it.”
Whether building a business, launching a non-profit or leading a district – all before the age of 33 – Sicat is no stranger to challenge. And he said he thrives on the demands of his current post, and plans to pursue a long career in education leadership.
Sicat said a laser focus on the kids he’s trying to help lets him navigate the pressures of the job. “If you base all of your decisions on improving student learning, you’ll succeed,” he said. “From what I have experienced, if you focus on the kids and get good results, that trumps everything else and all of the politics.”
- By Andrea Bennett