Chicago Schools CEO Brizard kicks off listening tour at Englewood school

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Jean Claude Brizard, the newly-minted CPS CEO, started his listening tour Thursday at Guggenheim Elementary, a school that is representative of one of the district’s biggest problems.

Located in Englewood, Guggenheim’s test scores lag behind the rest of the district and its student population has dwindled through the years. About 70 schools in CPS are like Guggenheim with fewer than 300 students–the population at which experts say schools become financially viable.

But closing down schools like Guggenheim is not easy, as Brizard’s predecessor found out last year. 

After crunching the numbers, former CEO Ron Huberman announced last year that Guggenheim was going to close down. But after intense community pressure, at the last minute he allowed it to stay open, citing safety concerns.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said that Guggenheim was chosen as the first stop in the listening tour because it is in Ald. Latasha Thomas’ ward. Thomas is the chairwoman of the City Council’s education committee. 

“He (Brizard) wanted to start in a neighborhood school,” she said. Brizard plans to visit a school every day (except Fridays) until the end of the school year, and to have listening sessions with different groups around the city a few times a week. Brizard hails from New York.

Since last year, Guggenheim has gotten a new, dynamic principal, Vikki Stokes. Her task is to revive the school against all odds. Englewood has seen its population decline, and families now have a myriad of choices in schools, from magnets to charter schools.

Sit-down sessions between Brizard, Stokes and teachers were kept private. Stokes said she spoke to Brizard about the need to give schools like hers the resources to prepare students to compete in a global world. She noted that students are expected to be tested on the new Common Core standards in 2014. 

“These kindergarteners will be tested on them,” she said. “They are expected to be much more rigorous than current standards. I want to be ready.”

Stokes also wanted more help exposing her students to a good science curriculum, something that Brizard, a former physics and science teacher, could relate to.

She said she wasn’t worried that the school is still in danger of shutting down. But the thought still lingered in the minds of some students and teachers. 

Brizard went into a science class, where some students were observing worms and others were watching a virtual tour of an exhibit at the Field Museum. Brizard stopped to ask Jaquisha Bowman about a DNA model. 

She sheepishly smiled, but didn’t exactly know the answer. Later, she said Guggenheim is the school her mother, her mother’s siblings and all her brothers and sisters attended. 

Going out to rallies to try to save Guggenheim was still fresh in her mind. But she said she thought that test scores were better and that would keep the doors open. 

Bettye Plarr, who serves on the local school council and has a daughter at Guggenheim, said she thinks administrators like Brizard need to talk to parents before making decisions that affect children.

“In the back of my mind I keep thinking that the school will be turned into a charter school,” she said. That would be a shame, she said, because many of the current teachers work hard and go out of their way for the students. 

Plarr told Brizard that she wanted to talk with him. He gave her his e-mail address.

Few other parents were on hand to talk to Brizard.

Stokes was only notified on Wednesday that Brizard would be coming by the next day. There was no publicity around his visit. 

The parents and community members who did show up were mostly there by happenstance. One was coming to chaperone a field trip that did not happen. Another was there to complain about her daughter being bullied. 

Stokes said that Brizard’s staff told her that he wanted to see a regular school day.