New schools CEO, education team: analysis

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In announcing his new education team, Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel emphasized
that his choice for chief executive officer, Jean-Claude Brizard,
started out as a math teacher and worked his way up to principal of a
New York City high school before becoming superintendent of Rochester
schools. But the fact that Brizard worked in the trenches—a trait many community
activists longed for in a CEO—did little to allay concerns that he was
picked specifically because he wouldn’t be afraid to get into a battle
with the teachers’ union. In announcing his new education team, Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel emphasized that his choice for chief executive officer, Jean-Claude Brizard, started out as a math teacher and worked his way up to principal of a New York City high school before becoming superintendent of Rochester schools.

But the fact that Brizard worked in the trenches—a trait many community activists longed for in a CEO—did little to allay concerns that he was picked specifically because he wouldn’t be afraid to get into a battle with the teachers’ union.

In Rochester, Brizard has had a contentious relationship with the union as he pushed for merit pay. Unwilling to compromise, Brizard was only able to get the union to sign on to a one-year contract extension and Rochester’s union is working without a contract.

Here in Chicago, a similar battle could be brewing with the Chicago Teachers Union. President Karen Lewis remarked sarcastically on Brizard’s appointment, saying “I think it’s just going to be wonderful. Let’s hope he’s ready for a fresh start, let’s put it that way. Let’s hope that he’s learned his lessons in Rochester.”

As CPS faces a projected $700 million deficit, Brizard and district officials will have to figure out whether they can pay teachers a promised 4 percent raise. And next year, the union contract will have to be renegotiated.

Plus, the Illinois Senate last week passed legislation last week that would make it harder for teachers to earn tenure and limit the union’s ability to strike, as well as ease the way for the district to lengthen the school day, something that Emanuel has said he would do. (The bill has not yet passed the House.)

The teachers union was not the only group to have trouble with Brizard in Rochester. Some parent groups and members of the city’s school board—which, unlike in Chicago, is elected—criticized him for a lack of transparency and collaborative spirit.

But with mayoral control of schools here in Chicago, the appointment of Brizard is a done deal. Emanuel also announced a new board of education that he expects to seat on May 16, the day of his inauguration, or soon thereafter. The board includes heavy-hitters who can provide back-up for Brizard: Penny Pritzker, chair of the Chicago Public Education Fund; former CPS executive David Vitale, slated to be board president; Jesse Ruiz, who will leave his current post as chair of the Illinois State Board of Education and is slated to be board vice-president; Andrea Zopp, head of the Chicago Urban League; and Mahalia Hines, a former principal and mother of rap artist Common.   

The new board is expected to quickly give the nod to Brizard and five others whom Emanuel also announced on Monday as his recommendations for top posts. Emanuel said he interviewed six candidates for CEO, and also noted that he felt compelled to appoint the education team first because education is his top priority.

His picks won praise from a variety of quarters, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and New York State education officials, including the president of the University of Rochester and Dennis Walcott, New York City’s deputy mayor for education and community development.

Yet the CTU and several community advocacy organizations said they had wanted to have a role in choosing the new schools chief and had formed a committee that drafted a list of qualities for a CEO, such as a track record of improving schools, not closing them, and of collaboration.

“In Brizard we have none of the above,” said Julie Woestehoff, president of Parents United for Responsible Education. Woestehoff and other activists said the process shows the need for an elected school board.

Emanuel, however, hasn’t bought that argument.

At the press conference, Brizard read a short statement. Emanuel declined to let him take any questions.

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Emanuel also pointed out that Brizard was a Haitian immigrant and believes that each child should be given the same opportunity he was given. Emanuel said he was most impressed with how Brizard spoke about his education initiatives.

“He didn’t talk about reforms,” Emanuel said. “He talked about students, and how [the reforms] impacted students.”

Brizard’s philosophy—pro-charter and merit pay, for instance—seems to line up with Emanuel’s, as does his disposition as a no-nonsense leader.

Emanuel also wants to reward principals for results and has floated the idea of putting each school on a five-year contract, much as charter schools have contracts that require they meet benchmarks or be shut down. It is unclear how such a move would work with traditional schools, however.

The details of these plans will be left to Noemi Donoso, Emanuel’s pick as chief education officer, who just eight months ago became head of the Office of School Reform and Innovation in Denver, Colorado. (The office was formerly known as the Office of New Schools.)

Donoso’s experience has been mainly in Los Angeles, where she was principal of three different charter schools and was chief education officer for Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, a network with five campuses and about 2,000 students.

Ana Ponce, executive director of Camino Nuevo Academy, says that Donoso was instrumental in developing a benchmark assessment system, which helped teachers to look at the progress of each student. Donoso had each campus set goals and held them responsible for reaching them.

“She is a great asset,” Ponce says. “She will do right by the kids.”

At the press conference, Emanuel said Brizard had a hand in choosing the entire executive team. However, Brizard shares Donoso’s commitment to using data to drive school improvement. In Rochester, Brizard was criticized for putting too much emphasis on data and being out of tune with what goes on in the classroom.

But in fact, Rochester’s use of data doesn’t sound much different from that of former CEO Ron Huberman, whose signature performance management initiative required regular meetings to look at specific data points.

Some principals thought performance management was helpful, but others criticized it, saying it was more punitive than instructive.

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Huberman also took heat for his lack of outreach to communities—an area where Brizzard has struggled, too.

 

When Brizard first took office, many in Rochester were optimistic that he would usher in a time of renewed collaboration between the different camps—parents, teachers and the union, and the central administration—that are part of the school system. 

However, the reality turned out quite differently, in some eyes.

“He fooled a number of people,” said Howard Eagle, a Rochester parent, former teacher and member of the Community Education Task Force.  “It seemed as if he placed a premium on collaboration and cooperation but it became clear shortly that what he really was doing was building up political clout and so forth.” 

Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, who has headed the union for about three decades, says Brizard came in “announcing his intent to collaborate with teachers and their union,” but eventually proved to be a top-down leader.

The district and the union are in mediation over a new contract. (New York state law does not allow teachers to strike.) “We have not been able to negotiate a contract with him in all the years he’s been here,” Urbanski says. “He has refused my repeated pleas to negotiate himself. He is sending lawyers to negotiate with us, and he is not making compromises.”

 “He promoted charter schools at the same time he was neglecting struggling public schools,” says Urbanski, who is also director of the Teacher Union Reform Network as well as the vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Still, members of Chicago’s education community are urging that Brizard be given a chance and met with an open mind.

When Brizard took over, Rochester’s high school graduation rate was only 39 percent.  That rate climbed to around 46 percent last year. He also started an in-school suspension program for misbehaving students—keeping them in school rather than out—although some critics felt the plan did not fully address the causes of students’ misbehavior.

Janet Knupp, president and CEO of the Chicago Public Education Fund, says Brizard should show that he’s open to dialogue with teachers at a time when the district is facing a host of challenges, including financial problems and a need to find a better way to evaluate teachers effectively.

“We’re hopeful that he will bring a willingness to tackle these complex issues,” says Knupp. Solving these challenges, she adds, “will require people to come together and talk to each other and be unified behind a vision.”

Andrew Broy, executive director of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, notes that when leaders make hard decisions, it often creates dissent. In Rochester, Brizard spearheaded the creation of a strategic plan. Broy says this is something Chicago desperately needs and he is excited for Brizard to be given a chance to develop one here.

“This is a moment in time for CPS, a moment for us to re-imagine what we could be,” he says.