In school visits, Brizard studies CPS strengths, weaknesses

New CEO looks hard at teaching, lack of technology.

July 15, 2011

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(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, left, and Garvey principal Michelle Van Allen visit a third grade classroom.

Chicago’s new schools chief has been getting to know the school system he’s in charge of. He’s visited 14 schools in his seven weeks on the job. WBEZ tagged along with him on a school visit this week to find out what he’s learning.

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If Jean-Claude Brizard is anything, he’s absolutely at ease in a school—

He sits unflinchingly in pint-sized chairs, speaks easily with children, talks shop with school leaders.

BRIZARD: How do you keep your scores increasing and closing gaps, meeting AYP?

PRINCIPAL: I think teacher morale, relationships…

Brizard started his career as a teacher in New York City. And the teacher in him came out quickly during his visit to Marcus Garvey Elementary on Chicago’s Far South Side. Two sixth graders were reading, he sat right down.

STUDENT: Hurt not others with that which pains thyself.
BRIZARD:  So when you look at these six different religions, right? So what do you think they’re saying?
STUDENT: I think they all are saying, ‘Treat people how you want to be treated.’
BRIZARD: You’re right—all basically saying the same thing. Good job, guys.

In a district of extremes, with the very best schools in the state and also the worst, Garvey is somewhere in the middle.

Brizard is getting an up-close look at what that means. Many decisions he makes during his tenure will be based on numbers—test scores, attendance rates, graduation rates. School visits give him insights into why those numbers are what they are, and where precious dollars should be spent.

TEACHER: Eyes are? Watching! Ears are? Listening! Hands are? Folded!

Brizard is impressed with a kindergarten teacher who refocuses her 5-year-olds with that little chant. But one girl remains distracted, and Brizard tells the principal the teacher should take extra steps to get her attention too.

BRIZARD:  Calling her out specifically. Because every other kid turned and focused. But she kept looking sideways.

Brizard also likes the double-wide science room, but the sink is bone dry, the faucet missing.

BRIZARD: You don’t really have a fully functioning science laboratory with running water and gas?
PRINCIPAL: No, this is what we have.
BRIZARD: It’s a big story in middle schools around the country.

In the computer lab, Brizard finds PCs he calls “ancient.” A teacher tells him she uses the slow computers as an opportunity to teach patience.

Brizard’s tour guide is principal Michelle Van Allen. She’s been at Marcus Garvey, well…

VAN ALLEN: Yes, most of my life—that’s true.

Van Allen attended Garvey, then became a student teacher here, a teacher, and finally the principal.

Brizard tells me that as superintendent in Rochester, New York, he let lots of principals go. He says some of that may happen here, but overall, schools are better than he expected.

CLASS AMBI: You’re gonna measure all these body parts, so you can begin with your partner. First you’re gonna do the length of the head. Remember we’re going to the quarter inch, the half inch, the three-quarter inch…

In the third grade , Brizard watches as two boys use a tape measure to find the length of their heads. They’re doing it wrong. One boy starts from the crown of his head, the other from his hairline. Their measurements are wildly different, even though they’re about the same size. No one corrects them, and they continue on.

Eventually, Brizard improvises a little lesson as they measure their legs from the waist to the floor.

BRIZARD: How do you know where to start? Is that where his waist is? What if he’s wearing his pants way down?  That’s not your waist, is it? That’s your rib cage.

BRIZARD: You always take into account there’s so much happening in a classroom, you’re never going to catch everything. So what you really want to watch are glaring errors—like the measurement errors here. He’s not getting a fundamental skill in measurement, so that’s a bit disturbing.

But overall, at the end of 100 minutes, Brizard tells Principal Van Allen he saw students engaged in every class. He liked that kids were working in groups, teachers weren’t lecturing.

BRIZARD: You run a good ship, a tight ship…  I saw quite a bit of consistency in terms of teacher behavior. The one thing we have to do better for you is the technology piece.
VAN ALLEN: Now, hold on. Let me make a note. You said you’re going to do better for me!
BRIZARD: We have to.

The measurement lesson Brizard saw is a good metaphor for what he himself is doing. He’s sizing up the city’s schools, principals, teachers. That sort of measurement is complicated and controversial. It’s almost a guarantee that in the coming months some will argue he’s not measuring things right, his comparisons aren’t fair, or he’s using the wrong ruler.