Beth Swanson builds metrics that enhance the effectiveness of educational programs for children in Chicago.
Beth Swanson, MPP'02

At Harris you think about issues on a larger scale: what’s effective and what isn’t, what’s the return on investment.

Elizabeth Foley Swanson knew from an early age that she wanted to work in education. She just needed to find the right “space.”

As Chicago’s Deputy Mayor for Education, a role she held until a few years ago, Swanson (MPP ’02), found herself in the middle of some of the boldest national initiatives in urban education. And the “space” she occupied is one she came to with a broad-based portfolio of experiences.

Swanson hails from small-town New England – the town in which she spent much of her childhood has less than 5,000 people – and earned her undergraduate degree at Amherst College. At Amherst, which did not offer a formal education curriculum, she found ways to study topics which would become relevant to and serve her well in her future assignments: history, sociology, poverty and the stratification of society.

With a group of Amherst students, she would travel to nearby communities and tutor children from low-income backgrounds. “I found ways of engaging in the subject matter that was most important to me even if my specific course work was broader in focus,” she said.

A stint in Boston running programs for non-profits that had direct impact on low-income youth preceded a move to Chicago – her husband would be attending Northwestern University’s Law School – where she began working with the Constitutional Rights Foundation. There, she focused on a project working in partnership with Chicago Public Schools (CPS), developing programs for high school students around service learning.

Her main contact at CPS was a project manager named Arne Duncan, later to become Chief Executive Officer of the nation’s third-largest school district, and subsequently U.S. Secretary of Education.

Around that time, Swanson decided that she needed to fill an experiential void – and she looked at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy as a logical place to meet that need. “I had done direct service, worked for not-for-profits, coordinated with a large public bureaucracy,” she said. “I felt like I needed to go back to school. I felt like policy was the right place for me, and Harris would bring a more quantitative focus to my work.”

Harris proved to be far different from her years at Amherst, where “you pretty much guide your own learning.”

“At Harris you think about issues on a larger scale: what’s effective and what isn’t, what’s the return on investment,” she said.

She said a class taught by Professor Robert LaLonde was particularly influential in her Harris experience. One assignment had students research an issue as if they would have to testify before Congress – something Swanson later had to do in real life.

During her second year at Harris she also worked with John Easton, then head of the University’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, who Duncan brought to CPS to reshape the district’s Office of Research, Evaluation and Accountability. After being “embedded” at CPS for this project, Duncan asked her to stay on and start a new program focused on after-school programming.

She grew that department over five years into a staff of 25 staffers with an $80 million budget that developed a vision for programming at more than 100 schools and served upwards of 200,000 students, along with parents and community members. “We challenged the system to do things differently … challenged the conventional wisdom that schools had to close at 3 p.m.,” she said, noting that the program essentially lengthened the school day, a key initiative in her current assignment.

Swanson moved to the District’s Budget Office, a “much different experience,” especially coming at a time when budgets began to shrink. Nonetheless, she said, managing CPS’s multi-billion dollar budget presented her with a more comprehensive view of education. “It was a way to see the system at a global level because budget touches everything. You learn the entire system, learn about every school, learn about the role of state and federal governments.”

After seven years at CPS, Swanson in 2009 moved to the philanthropic world as the executive director of the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation, whose giving focuses on children and schools. There, she could pursue her passion for education through different means, by directing funds to initiatives and programs that had a direct effect on education, school leadership and in communities around Chicago.

As the 2011 Chicago mayoral election approached, Swanson became an adviser to then-candidate Rahm Emanuel on education issues, and with Emanuel’s victory was named to lead the transition team on education, one of the incoming mayor’s top priorities.

“I guess I worked myself into a job,” she said with a chuckle. Her portfolio there as Deputy Mayor for Education ranged from birth to career – from early childhood education to the City Colleges. But she was also charged with breaking down traditional silos and “connecting the dots” for all institutions – city, non-profits, private and cultural institutions – for the benefit of Chicago’s children.

“I spent a lot of time getting people around same table to make our agenda kid-centric and not adult-centric. It was hard work but we made a lot of progress,” she said.

The role was a political one, she acknowledged, and carrying out the Mayor’s aggressive agenda proved difficult at times.  As keynote speaker at the Harris School commencement this spring, she shared with the graduates the need to “be bold” in order to make a true difference.   While at the Mayor's Office, Swanson helped build metrics to measure the success of the programs that support “cradle to career,” and a data “warehouse” that provides quantitative support for all of the programs throughout all agencies that serve children.  

Metrics, a data warehouse, quantitative analysis – “full circle” for a Harris School alumna, she acknowledged with a laugh.

Swanson -- the mother of three, all of whom attend CPS schools -- moved a couple of short years ago from the Mayor's Office into a leadership role with the Joyce Foundation.   There, she helps guide an annual grant portfolio of $50 million, providing strategic direction to all programs and working on foundation-wide innovation initiatives. She also directs the Special Opportunities Fund and the Education & Economic Mobility Program.