As new CEO Brizard comes in, layoffs already underway in Chicago Public Schools

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Jean-Claude Brizard is not yet sitting at the helm of central office,
but already the administration is getting ready to deal with the budget
crisis he will encounter.  On Friday, an undisclosed number of central
office employees were told their positions will be closed at the end of
this fiscal year. Jean-Claude Brizard is not yet sitting at the helm of central office, but already the administration is getting ready to deal with the budget crisis he will encounter.  On Friday, an undisclosed number of central office employees were told their positions will be closed at the end of this fiscal year.

Next in line will be area offices. Brizard, who was in town Friday, had an extended meeting with current CPS officials to figure out what the role of area offices should be.  These offices were beefed up under former Schools CEO Ron Huberman, as citywide positions (such as speech pathologists and other ancillary staff who work in multiple schools) and central office suffered cuts.

Area offices may be especially vulnerable because Brizard said he wants to reduce the layers of bureaucracy between him and principals.

“I can’t influence 25,000 teachers, but I can influence 400-some principals,” he said during an interview with Catalyst Chicago.

The latest pending layoffs should make Brizard’s job a little easier when he is officially named as CEO sometime soon after May 16, when Rahm Emanuel is inaugurated as mayor.  The layoffs are likely being moved along by Chief Financial Officer Diana Ferguson, whom Brizard said he is talking to on a regular basis.

Brizard also talked to Catalyst about some of his priorities and the experience that has laid the foundation for how he would like to improve the school system. Among his ideas: support for per-pupil budgeting; more professional development for teachers; peer evaluation for teachers;  and accountability for charter schools.

“Charters have to hold themselves to a higher standard, since they’ve been given freedom and autonomy,” Brizard said.

But overshadowing all these goals and plan will be CPS’ budget deficit, which is estimated to be about $820 million. Because of the transition to a new administration, the budget process is behind schedule. Usually, by this time, principals have their budgets and are starting to make adjustments based on them. But this year, principals have gotten nothing official, except word that the picture is not pretty.

While Brizard can find some savings in central and area offices, the bulk of the district’s money is spent on teacher salaries—which means real savings can be found by increasing class sizes.

At the same time, Brizard talked earnestly about wanting to improve the district’s teaching and learning environment. He referred back to his days as a teacher, and spoke about the need for professional development for principals so that they can become instructional leaders, not just building managers. 

Teachers “don’t want to work for a lousy principal,” he said.

Brizard also proudly described how he got a federal grant to lead teachers as they created their own curriculum. What the teachers created had an online component with 600 videos and lesson plans. He also was able to purchase 1,500 Smart Boards for teachers.

Yet Brizard also noted that the district should have a curriculum that is standardized, to some degree, because of the high mobility rate. This is especially important in the lower grades when fundamentals such as reading are taught. 

“If we have 15 approaches to literacy, you get young people who move around and never learn to read,” he said.

However, Brizard said he was not sure he would force charters to adopt a standard curriculum.

Brizard also said he wants school staff to do regular “data dives.” But, using the acronym DRIP—data rich, information poor—he also noted that staff must use data analysis strategically, to change and improve teaching.

Brizard stressed that time on task is important to him and would like to extend the school day. He said that students in affluent schools tend to get more time in a classroom doing class work than do poor children. He also noted that school is often one of the safer places for children.

“I would love to have a 200-day school year,” he said.

But in order to really make the extra time worthwhile, he admitted that teachers will need a lot of professional development so they will use the time not just to lecture to students, but doing interactive activities.

“We are not just talking about talking at students for 90 minutes or talking slower,” said Brizard, who recounted that as a physics teacher, he who devoted time to a book “Physics in Poetry” and had read-alouds during class.

Still, more teacher training will take money.

Charter schools are another area where Brizard’s plans don’t exactly match the reality he will face on day one. He would like to take an “urban planning approach” to decisions on where to locate charter schools. In other words, he would look at where there are no good schools and work to get a charter there.

When Mayor Richard M. Daley and former CEO Arne Duncan announced Renaissance 2010, the initiative under which many charters were opened, the idea was to target the neighborhoods with a dearth of good schools. Yet only half of the neighborhoods pinpointed as needing new schools got charters, according to a Catalyst analysis.

Politics and community activists, many of whom are suspicious of charters, have put the kibosh on charters in some cases.  Charter schools have lotteries and therefore are not neighborhood schools, prompting parents to complain that they live across the street from a school that they can’t send their children to.

Brizard said that just tells him that there is a need for more good schools in the neighborhood.

He also said that he wants to foster collaboration between charter schools and traditional schools. Charter schools after all were started in order to foster innovation. “That is something we have gotten away from,” he said. Yet recently the school district has focused more on replicating existing charters rather than finding new and innovative operators.

Brizard is working on a plan that includes listening tours with the community. “The schools belong to the community and I want talk to the people who live there,” he said.

He said he is open to hearing the thoughts of people in the community about charter schools—and that while they can give him an understanding of why they oppose them, that perhaps he can give them a better idea of why they exist.