New CEO, new board, wary teachers

Emanuel picks Rochester superintendent to head nation's third largest school district

April 19, 2011

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Jean-Claude Brizard

Chicago has a new schools chief.  His name is Jean-Claude Brizard. He’s currently the superintendent of schools in Rochester, New York.

But Chicago is getting a lot more than just a new CEO. In a major shake-up, Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel announced yesterday he is replacing the entire Board of Education, and he named other top CPS administrators as well.

Jean Claude Brizard is the son of Haitian immigrants, the child of a teacher who grew up to be a teacher himself, then became a principal, then a top administrator in the New York City Public Schools.

BRIZARD: I remain hopeful, enthusiastic, and even more dedicated to improving the lives of children through education. In my opinion there is no greater calling than to the field of education, where we have the power to change the lives and trajectories of young people.

Mayor-elect Emanuel wants the trajectory of the district to change as well.

EMANUEL: To solve the problems confronting our schools system, we will have to come together as one city to embrace reform and change.

Brizard pushed changes in Rochester, including merit pay and school closures. Those proved unpopular with Rochester teachers; they recently gave him an overwhelming vote of “no confidence.”

Hiring a guy with that kind of credential could be seen as a not-so-subtle message to Chicago’s teachers union.  And president Karen Lewis took it that way:

LEWIS: So it seems like the agenda’s set, so … here we go.

Lewis isn’t just referring to Brizard, but also to the rest of Emanuel’s education team. In all, the mayor-elect appointed 16 people yesterday.

The seven-member powerhouse board of education will include banker David Vitale; Illinois State Board of Education president Jesse Ruiz, and billionaire foundation director Penny Pritzker.

RADNER: This is really evidence of Rahm Emanuel’s very strategic thinking.

That’s DePaul University professor Barbara Radner.

RADNER: Look at this board… Penny Pritzker! Absolutely leader in Chicago foundations, setting the pace for changes—and here she is, on the board. Just remarkable… really, it’s a dream board!

Depending on what your dream is, of course. Many names announced yesterday have connections to charter schools and school fixes that require all staff to be fired.

Emanuel announced the appointments at Kelly High School on the working-class Southwest Side. One of Brizard’s biggest challenges will be convincing neighborhood schools like this one that they are a priority, even if they’re not as shiny and new as charters.

The principal at Kelly, Al Pretkelis, says he liked what Emanuel and Brizard had to say — well, Brizard wasn’t allowed to talk much or take questions from reporters. But Pretkelis liked the idea of giving principals more autonomy. He’s not a fan of merit pay though, which Emanuel said he wants to institute for Chicago teachers and principals.  Pretkelis says he’s not motivated by more pay.

PRETKELIS: Not at all. I never was. That’s why I’m here. If merit pay is your driving force, that’s not a good thing. The driving force should be improvement in the schools.  That should be the driving force.

Emanuel says Brizard is driven by doing what’s right for kids. He’s one of a growing number of schools superintendents trained by the Broad Superintendents Academy. The academy has more than 100 graduates in leadership positions around the country, including in Los Angeles and now Chicago.

Erica Lepping is a spokeswoman for the group:

LEPPING The academy basically gives participants an opportunity to travel around the country and learn deeply about the reform efforts that have taken place in many cities. So they look at best practices, they look at case studies, they analyze how to make systems more efficient.

That will come in handy when Brizard comes face to face with Chicago’s $720 million dollar deficit, wary teachers, and an ambitious new mayor.

Emanuel says he expects his new school board to be seated in May, when he takes office. Brizard should officially become the city’s schools chief shortly thereafter.