When Dr. Cheryl Logan steps down as Omaha Public Schools (OPS) Superintendent in June 2023, to return to her East Coast roots, she exits secure in her own legacy.
Fans point to accomplishments ranging from resetting the district’s long-troubled pension fund to creating higher education and career avenues for underserved students to authentically engaging friends and foes alike. Critics note she won a contract extension and raise, only to vie for a super’s job in Virginia before removing herself from contention. She then announced plans to resign from OPS.
Whatever the public opinion may be, she made history as the first female and person of color to lead OPS since its 1859 founding. That it took so long to embrace diversity and inclusivity at the top, troubles her, but she is nonetheless proud of breaking that barrier.
“It’s very meaningful to me,” she said.
Her social identity as a Black woman in a diverse urban district in a red state is inescapably disruptive.
“Outside my office there’s a row of pictures of all the superintendents before me. I’ve walked past it now thousands of times and there have been zero times I haven’t noticed that. I’m aware of what it means, I’m aware of how people perceive me because of it. I’m aware how people are hyper-critical because of it.”
This daughter of a D.C. cop and a classroom teacher earned her stripes in Maryland, where she spent the first two decades-plus of her education career. “I’m a very strong person, period. I have a very clear moral compass and a bright north star for the things I value and how I conduct myself personally. It doesn’t mean it hasn’t been personally difficult at times.”
She ascribes her strength to her parents, John, and Shirley Jackson. Her father was a U.S. Marine and D.C. area patrolman-turned-detective. Her mother was a classroom teacher for three decades. Logan followed in her footsteps and now her own daughter, Cassie, makes it three generations of educators in the family (she teaches autistic children).
Imbued with expectations of excellence, Logan and her siblings all became high achievers, including a judge, a lawyer-lobbyist, and a foundation manager.
With degrees from the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Pennsylvania, Cheryl moved from teacher to principal, to chief of academic support for the Philly school district. After being a semifinalist for super jobs she finally got her chance to lead a district in Omaha.
“I am so proud to represent OPS. I don’t make any disclaimers or think we’re less than,” she said, despite persistent low-test scores and transportation issues, both of which she inherited.
She dismisses criticism she’s leaving the job undone, noting, “It doesn’t matter how long you stay, there’s always work to be done, always challenges.”
She deems “inappropriate” the contention she should be obligated to stay through 2025, when her contract expires, instead of leaving on her “own terms.” “As an African American female, am I not supposed to do that? Look, I am an Ivy League-educated, highly effective superintendent with an option to leave on the day and timing of my choosing, and that’s what I’m doing. It’s not any different than any other person.”
She said there is no underlying frustration with issues facing the district or the job’s politics prompting her to leave. It’s simply about family. “People are looking for intrigue. There’s just no intrigue. I’m going home. Be happy for me. Just like many other people reassessed their lives during COVID-19, I decided I need to be with the people I love and who love me, And, honestly, I don’t want to do this anymore. I have done it for a long time. I’m looking forward to being Cheryl Logan, a private citizen.”
When editorials, social media posts, phone calls, or emails attack her, she has a support system to “lean into” to help her navigate those times.
“My husband, who is my best friend, knows the game. He’s very good at saying, ‘Don’t pay attention to that, that is complete noise, you know what you’re doing, keep it moving.’ He’s a huge cheerleader.”
She turns to close colleagues and friends here and back East as well as her siblings and daughter.
Allies and enemies on the front and in the back rooms of public ed can be hard to distinguish in contentious academic and line-item budget debates.
“I feel like at any given time they can switch,” she said. “I don’t think they’re set in stone. Everything is situational. If I’m coming for a piece of your pie and you’re my ally you might be like, I love Cheryl, but I’m trying to keep my pie. I’m kind of hyper-aware of that.”
Being a political broker comes with the territory. She tries not to play favorites and won’t let personal differences get in the way of working with people she may not agree with if it means helping OPS.
“I have a lot of nontraditional allies. Nobody is off the table. There isn’t a political figure in this state I haven’t met with. I meet everybody. It doesn’t matter whether you stated your love or lack of love for OPS, I’m still going to meet with you because human connection is powerful. It’s harder to hate somebody that you know or to have them be your foe if you’ve had coffee with them.
“I have enjoyed a level of respect and courtesy in the Nebraska legislature that some of my predecessors did not. And I think a lot of that is the relationships I’ve formed with people on purpose and with a lot of time and care in understanding their point of view, even if I don’t agree with it. I’m very proud of that.”
Staying close to students and families has been a priority. “I read every day to kindergartners. That’s something I’ve done since I’ve been here. I really enjoy that. I substitute teach one day a month. I’m trying to do one last sweep-through before I leave Omaha. I also meet with an advisory committee of high schoolers every month.”
She accepts emails and direct messages from students. I don’t know there’s a superintendent closer with their young people than me.”
“I love talking to parents, even if it’s a difficult conversation about something they’re concerned about or they need to bring to my attention. People want to be listened to. I think that’s one of the things I do the best – I do listen to people. And I tell the truth.”
When it comes to how others may define or spin her legacy, she’s aware “opinions will differ.”
She’s confident in the things she’s gotten done here. Among other things, she shepherded the district’s new strategic plan. She secured pay raises for all OPS employees every year. She saw to it that students’ teachers get paid. She successfully lobbied for the passage of LB 147 which transfers the management of OPS’ pension funds from the Omaha School Employees Retirement System board of trustees to the Public Employees Retirement Board.
Under her watch, five brand new schools were built, two with YMCAs. A new district-wide reading curriculum was introduced. She implemented a turnaround model for three chronically underperforming North Omaha schools – Fontenelle, Belvedere, and Minne Lusa – which have all seen improvements with an influx of more resources. She made the district a partner in a new school-community health center serving Benson High and its neighborhood. When educational inequities emerged once learning went online, she saw to it that the district got federal economic recovery dollars to make OPS a one-to-one school district. An iPad was provided to all students, thus giving them internet access wherever they are.
“We really wanted to take as many barriers away as we could from children. Time was of the essence. We had a very immediate need for devices for all our children because we had schools with all different kinds of devices. We knew for the sake of managing something of this magnitude that it was going to be in our best interests to have a consistent device with internet access across all our schools. We’ve used subsequent Cares Act monies to extend that over the years.”
“All of that is part of my legacy,” Logan said.
She confirms dealing with COVID-19 and all the protocols, changes, and conflicts that arose from it, was “absolutely” the most challenging thing she’s dealt with in her career.
“The community leadership is something I’m very proud of here. Responding to the pandemic was an inexact science. But we gathered information from medical professionals before we made every decision. Connections I made with Douglas County Health and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) helped guide our decisions. I know we made different decisions from other school districts, but we’re a different district. We serve folks who don’t necessarily have access to healthcare (or childcare).”
She led OPS through a vaccine testing pilot study with UNMC that enabled students to return to in-person learning well ahead of other large urban districts. Overseeing a $1.4 billion organization, serving 52,000 students and their families, plus 8,000 employees, she said, “people were looking to me for leadership.” She is proud she and her staff personally “modeled” practices consistent with expert recommendations.
Logan is in demand as a speaker on “leading when the context is chaos” for implementing strategies amid a fluid and charged environment. The leadership she showed during the COVID-19 crisis helped her win the 2022 national McGraw Prize for outstanding achievement in K-12. The award recognizes “innovative and dedicated educators who empower our students and enhance our society.”
“At the McGraw ceremony, I had my daughter on my right, my husband on my left, and I was in heaven. It was magnificent. They sacrificed so I could do this job. To have them there to share, was tremendous because they earned it as much as I did.”
She brought much of what makes her successful here, but she’s also evolved during her Omaha tenure. “Philadelphia was a great training ground. I’m the same person I was when I got here. But while I’ve always understood you need to bring people along, now I really understand it. I understand even better how to get things done.”
If there’s anything she is sure of, it is that any CEO must be a servant leader. “If you aren’t serving other people, you’re not leading. It’s simple,” she said. “You have to know who you are, but also know whom you serve. You must know it’s not about you.”
As for her own leadership style, she said, “It’s collaborative, decisive, connected. It’s an information-gathering leadership style. I want to hear diverse opinions about things.” She purposely has a small inner circle she sounds out for advice.
She is unafraid to speak truth to power and privilege. OPS added academy programs and career pathways to address disparities and inequities. “These programs and pathways were already in Omaha,” she said, “but they were just for the privileged few. That was the change we made. People who have privilege don’t want to share it, period, and when they do share, guess what, they get to keep their big piece and you take whatever is left. Even in my interview, when the board asked about problems, I said the answers are already here, we just have to be brave enough to take on some of the privileges.”
Mentors impacted Logan’s journey and she’s inspired herself by high-achieving Black women, among them, new Harvard president Claudine Gay. Several women in Logan’s personal circle hold leadership positions, including a veteran IBM executive. Logan mentors several individuals. “I take my mentor and role model duties very seriously. People say all the time, ‘l learned to carry myself from watching you.’ I take that as a badge of honor.” She reminds those with executive aspirations they must be able to take the heat that comes with leadership.
Logan sees even more Black women entering leadership roles. While happy for those who get into those spots, she said, “I don’t think it’s anything to celebrate. As a matter of fact, I think it’s sad it took this long and it’s a thing. Instead of patting ourselves on the back, we should be embarrassed” that it is only happening now.
Still, she does not discount what these inroads mean to African Americans who have awaited them. The night she got the nod as OPS superintendent, is still fresh in her mind due to the large contingent of African Americans in the audience.
“That night was not about me. It was about the community getting to see someone who looks like them, who has a shared common experience lead this school district. It was special for this community that has a very complicated and complex history. I’m very aware of that history. There are elders in this community I regularly have conversations with because I know what it means for them to see someone who shares that common experience in this role. That connection is something I hold so precious and dear. I never take it for granted.”
To those suggesting her leaving after five years will destabilize a district that’s seen shakeups at the top for a decade, she said, “It will be fine.” She points to “the tremendous staff who know and do their job.” The transition is already underway, and she’ll make herself available to help smooth the way. As for advice she may offer, she said, “It’s a hard district to lead. It’s a big urban district in a small, rural state. I would say it’s a great district, be proud, and stand tall in leading it.”
“The opportunity to be the superintendent is an honor and a privilege. There hasn’t been one day I took that for granted.”