Jean-Claude Brizard won't officially assume control of Chicago Public Schools for several weeks, but already he's immersing himself in the complex challenges pervading the nation's third-largest school district.
Brizard is living up to his reputation as a data cruncher by poring over a decade of achievement records, test scores, literacy rates and graduation figures, and exploring the demographics that lead to achievement gaps between minority and disadvantaged students and their white counterparts.
The most pressing challenges will be resolving a $720 million budget deficit and striking a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union over hot-button issues like teacher pay, performance evaluations and longer school days.
He's also drawing up plans for a "listening tour" with teachers and students to build the kind of relationships he failed to sustain in three turbulent years atop the school district in Rochester, N.Y.
"You have to hit the ground running; I don't think anyone has the patience for us to come in and sit for a year to figure out what's going on," Brizard said Tuesday in his first interview with Chicago media since Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel appointed him April 18.
Brizard said he regretted that his relationship with the Rochester Teachers Association deteriorated to the point that the union issued a vote of no confidence in the superintendent less than a month after he signed a new three-year contract. Brizard said the disagreements were more about personality clashes than policy differences, but acknowledged he made mistakes in allowing those lines of communication to break down.
"I'm not sure where it went awry, I think it began to happen the first year," Brizard said, adding that the union asked him to stop regular meetings with teachers during contract talks. "We tried very hard to maintain a relationship throughout the years. We even had colleagues and mutual friends try to broker conversations over dinner, over coffee, even a glass of wine at a bar. Unfortunately, we never got there."
Brizard said he's learned from his difficulties with the union, which is why he's already spoken with CTU President Karen Lewis by phone and plans to meet with her in person next week.
"We're not going to agree on everything and I'm sure we're going to have some flare-ups," Brizard said. "But more important is that we keep talking to each other. The way you maintain a friendship is that you keep talking."
Brizard also has planned meetings with interim CPS chief Terry Mazany and former CPS boss and current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
He downplayed criticism that he inflated graduation rates in Rochester to appear more impressive. He said he didn't intend to take credit for gains that occurred under the previous administration, but that he helped continue the upward trend despite tougher graduation requirements and larger class sizes.
Brizard, 47, who was born in Haiti and spent 25 years in education in New York City and Rochester, said these days he's juggling two full-time jobs. He spends his days in Rochester sorting through a deep budget deficit and tying up loose ends. Nights and weekends are spent catching up on what's happening in Chicago.
While he has yet to lay out his educational priorities for CPS, Brizard said his philosophies are aligned with many of the same reform measures promoted by Emanuel during the campaign: boosting student performance, creating a robust "portfolio" of school choices, including charters, and improving safety in and around schools.
"I really would not have jumped at this if I didn't see synergy with what I think needs to be done in public education and what (Emanuel) thinks," Brizard said.
David Vitale, the newly appointed school board president for CPS, said Brizard will likely be judged on two core achievements: improving graduation rates and how well he prepares students for college and post-secondary training or work.
"Rahm is really a results-oriented guy," Vitale said. "And the results here would be graduating more kids and having the system progress toward that goal."
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