New Chicago schools chief has record of reform, but irked teachers

Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel taps Jean-Claude Brizard, superintendent in Rochester, N.Y., to head city schools. Brizard is a long-time educator, unlike new leaders of other big-city districts.

M. Spencer Green/AP
Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel holds his first post election news conference, on Feb. 23, in Chicago. Emanuel had signaled his intention to pick someone from outside Chicago, and rumors have been swirling about possible names – including Mr. Brizard – for some time.

The man Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel has selected to lead the Chicago Public Schools has a track record of improving graduation rates and test scores in his current job in Rochester, N.Y., but has also had conflicts with the teachers union there that recently resulted in a "no confidence" vote.

Jean-Claude Brizard, tapped Monday by Mr. Emanuel to be CEO of Chicago schools, has been superintendent of Rochester's schools for the past three years. The choice has been eagerly awaited in Chicago, where schools have had three CEOs in the past three years. (Arne Duncan, the current US Education Department secretary, headed Chicago’s schools until his current appointment.)

Emanuel had signaled his intention to pick someone from outside Chicago, and rumors have been swirling about possible names – including Mr. Brizard – for some time.

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In particular, many have wondered whether Emanuel would opt for someone with a background in education, given the recent controversy in Chicago – as well as in other cities, like New York – about superintendents with little education experience.

“Choosing between a manager and an experienced educator is a false choice,” Emanuel said at the press conference announcing his decision, calling Brizard “an experienced educator and a proven manager.” “He is not afraid of touch choices,” Emanuel added.

Brizard is a graduate of the prestigious Broad Superintendents Academy. Prior to Rochester, he spent more than 20 years in the New York City schools, as a science teacher, a high school principal, and a regional superintendent, among other roles. He is a native of Haiti.

Emanuel also announced the rest of his education team, including seven new school board members and the chief education officer, chief operating officer, and chief financial officer for the Chicago schools, among other posts.

“Yes the CEO is critical, but a CEO is only as good as the people around him or her, and what Emanuel has suggested is that he recognizes that,” says Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute. “This is a pretty remarkable group of people with public-education experience, business experience, and education-reform experience…. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a more diverse and expert team anywhere in the country right now.”

In Rochester, Brizard ran afoul of the local union, which opposed many of his reforms, including his support for charter schools and efforts to enact merit pay, and school closures. The union also critcized him for failing to seek input from teachers on new initiatives.

“They were his reforms. He never managed to get buy-in from teachers or parents,” says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association. “I am wishing very, very hard that he succeeds in Chicago,… but he is not likely to succeed until he recognizes that he can’t do it alone. He has to collaborate with teachers and parents.”

In Chicago, Brizard and his team will face significant challenges, including a $720 million school budget hole. He will also need to oversee what is likely to be a difficult contract negotiation with the Chicago Teachers Union.

"I think he comes to us having dealt with many of the same issues in Rochester that he will be faced with here," says Janet Knupp, CEO of the Chicago Public Education Fund, a local education reform group, citing Rochester's budget shortfall. "I'm very enthusiastic about the team of people who will be there to support him."

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