Equity & Diversity Opinion

Chicago Reformation: Q&A with CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard (Part 1)

By Marilyn Rhames — November 08, 2011 6 min read
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I first met CPS chief Jean-Claude Brizard in August and then wrote the blog post “Ready or Not, Here We Reform.” One of my teacher-friends was so upset that I called Brizard “a very smart leader” that he wouldn’t read my blog for a month. Controversy is nothing new to Brizard: From his $250,000 salary to his turbulent 3-year stint as the superintendent of schools in Rochester, New York to his offering Chicago teachers half of their contracted 4 percent raise only if they agreed to extend their school day by 90 minutes, people either highly respect him or strongly disapprove. Still, Brizard remains one of the most-watched district leaders in America. If he can get his ambitious reform initiatives to work in Chicago, school districts around the country will surely follow. But that is a big “IF.”

Now six months into his work in Chicago, I asked Brizard to reflect on his time as a teacher, his impressions of the Chicago Teachers Union, his aggressive reform agenda, and his peculiar management style. This is the first excerpt from the interview, with two more to follow.

The Back Story

So you started out as a classroom teacher in New York.

Brizard: My first teaching job was in a high school in Queens, and I was displaced a few weeks after I got there. [Later] I went to work for the middle school in Brooklyn and I worked there for four years.

Rhames: And now you’re the CEO of the third largest school district in America.

Yeah (chuckling). Not the thing that I ever imagined would ever happen to me.

Rhames: So what inspired you to choose a career in education and what has kept you in the field all this time?

My parents were teachers—my father was an elementary school principal [in Haiti]. I never wanted to do what they did because my parents wanted me to be a doctor. They were afraid that I would never make enough money to pay for my kids’ education and live the life they wanted me to live. But when my mom saw that I was sort of unhappy trying to get a job as a chemist, she said, “Give this a shot—they’re looking for teachers in New York.” I actually saw a news report that they were short by six, seven thousand teachers for openings in the schools. They were taking people without a license and were giving them a temporary license.

I went downtown and took the written test and did a 500 word essay. And because I was going for chemistry, they sent me to take a performance test in chemistry. It was the most asinine thing I ever experienced in my life because they asked me to make salt disappear and then they asked me to make it come back. I mean, any 3rd grader could make salt disappear by putting it in hot water. And that was my experience getting a license to teach back in the fall ‘85. And when I went into the high school I knew no one, I had no education courses, no training courses whatsoever and they gave me a math textbook and Delaney Cards, and I was told good luck.

What made me stay very simply was I was teaching in the middle school in Brooklyn, and I really fell in love with a bunch of 8th grade kids. I had a ball. Some of them are still my friends today. Then I ended up teaching physics in a high school, and I just loved what I was doing. But for the first four years I kept saying, “I’m not going to stay. I’ll do this for one more year then I’m going to leave.” And 25 years later, I’m still doing it.

Rhames: Did anything in your childhood—perhaps a favorite teacher—inspire you to teach?

One of my favorite teachers from when I first came into the United States was Mr. Cherarsard, a Haitian guy who taught us all our courses in French and Creole. And I have to tell you that to this day he has made a lasting impression on me. He treated us as if we were his own children. The school I walked into had no bilingual program, and I spoke no English. Basically he created a bilingual program the following fall. He helped me skip a grade in middle school. He didn’t push me to be a teacher, but if you ask me to go back and think about people who were most influential, he certainly was someone who did that for me.

How old were you when you came to the United States from Haiti?

I was 12. I came in at the tail end of 6th grade in May 1976. When I first walked in there were no bilingual classes, so they put me in classes and I had no idea what was going on. The only class I could relate to was math, because that’s a universal language. By fall, they put me in a class with a bunch of Haitian kids, and I was skipped to the 9th grade within six months after that.

Layoffs: Closing the Budget Gap

Rhames: Let’s fast forward to 2010. You were leading the district in Rochester, New York and cut teaching jobs there to close an $80 million gap. Why come to Chicago where there’s a $720 million dollar budget gap and a teachers union that’s gearing up for contentious contract negotiations? We have way more problems than Rochester.

Brizard: First of all, my wife and I always loved Chicago. But I think fundamentally, this is the kind of work that we have to do to close the achievement gap, and there are huge gaps in Chicago. But there is one person, if I were to pick, who convinced me to take this job in Chicago it’s Rahm Emanuel. Just listening to him, and listening to his YouTube videos, and watching his campaign from where I was. When you listen to the Mayor you’re listening to a person who really wants to do what’s right for kids. It was an easy decision.

In terms of Rochester—don’t forget that the scale I’m used to was New York City. I worked in New York City for 22 years. So that kind of scale doesn’t bother me...

In Rochester, one of the reasons we looked at layoffs—and it wasn’t just teachers, it was a bunch of people—[was to] downsize central office by 30 percent. This was before the budget shortfall. We had an unusually bloated central office in Rochester, so we went after that first. The second problem was that when you look at teacher rolls in Rochester, the district lost quite a few kids and the number of teachers had increased exponentially, so there was an inverse relationship in the number of staff and the number of kids. So as the population declined, for some reason they kept hiring more and more people, especially assistant principals and teachers. And we had to right-size it. Basically we had to bring the system back into alignment. The ratio between teachers and students was 1 to 8. So there was a huge bloat that we actually had to address.

But I did everything we could do not to lay people off. In fact, we proposed to the union that if they took a salary freeze for one year, I could save just about every job in the district. And as a good faith effort, I actually offered to give back some of my salary. And I gave back $10,000 of my salary just to show good faith. I said, “I’ll be the first to take a cut. And I’m not asking anyone to take a cut—I’m just asking for a freeze. Don’t take a raise to save 200 jobs.” The union president [Adam Urbanski ] called it a gimmick and refused to do it.

But I’m one who believes that you have to downsize bureaucracy before you touch schools.

Teachers Unions: Friend or Foe?

Rhames: You’ve been in Chicago for a few months now, I’d like your opinion on how the Chicago Teachers Union has impacted education reform. Has it been a positive or negative impact?

Next week: Brizard shares his views on the Chicago Teachers Union and its leadership, as well as his strategy for reforming the teaching profession in the city.

Photo: Provided by Chicago Public Schools

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.