Described as passionate and stubborn, charismatic and calculating, Jean-Claude Brizard is the new face of reform for Chicago's distressed public school system.
Shaped by his humble roots in Haiti and forged in battles with school boards, parents and unions over a 25-year career in New York public schools, Brizard is accustomed to taking on challenges. But Chicago presents pitfalls unlike any he faced in New York City, where over 21 years he climbed the ranks from high school physics teacher to a regional superintendent, or in Rochester, N.Y., where a turbulent 31/2-year run as schools superintendent left questions about his ability to lead.
"I've never had an easy job in my life," said Brizard, 47, whose first teaching job was as a science instructor for teenage inmates at Rikers Island Prison in New York. "Each (job) has taught me a lot about what to do next and how to do things differently."
At Chicago Public Schools, Brizard encounters perhaps his stiffest test yet: a school district sinking beneath massive debt, ineffective reform efforts, academic failures and years of upheaval in leadership. But Brizard, the district's fourth chief executive since 2009, sees an opportunity to succeed where he failed in Rochester.
"It's not about reform for reform's sake, but how do we change the lives of children?" Brizard said. "That has to be the reason why we do this work."
Brizard's philosophies on life and education were partly shaped by his boyhood in Haiti under the brutal dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Brizard said his grandfather, a classical music conductor, was imprisoned for seven years because of his political views. When the family learned Brizard's father might be next, his parents fled Haiti, leaving Brizard and two siblings behind with family.
Six years later, Brizard, then 12, and his siblings reunited with their parents, but the images of poor families in his native country, with "fathers going through garbage cans to find food for their children," was forever imprinted in his mind.
As a Haitian in working-class Brooklyn, he endured bullying and violence, once getting jumped by teenage boys in a high school bathroom. His parents emphasized education, so while French and Creole were their native languages, they insisted the children speak only English at home. Brizard excelled in school and graduated from high school at age 16.
"Our parents instilled hard work in us. Education was the key," said Brizard's brother Jeff Brisard, an assistant principal at a Brooklyn high school. The two brothers, while close, spell their family names differently. "Without education, there was nothing," Brisard said.
Those early childhood experiences helped define Brizard's sense of fairness and equality, friends said, and is a reason why so many of his reform efforts have sought to close the achievement gap between students from poor and affluent backgrounds.
"He has seen poverty at a whole different level, and I think that has given him a fresh perspective on its impact on education," said George Nicholas, pastor at the Grace United Methodist Church in Rochester. "Poverty is a factor that can impede a young person's ability to get an education, but it can't be an excuse."
Brizard's immigrant roots continue to influence his outlook.
"I tell my (students) all the time that if you can't get through the front door, try the back door. If it's locked, try the window. If it's locked, go down the chimney," he said. "By any means necessary, get inside the house. Get inside and change (the world) from within."
The son of a teacher and a principal, Brizard didn't intend to follow his parents into education. But after college and the teaching stint at Rikers, he landed a full-time job at George Westinghouse High School, a struggling vocational school in Brooklyn where dwindling enrollment and poor academics put it on the cusp of closure. He said he fell in love with the profession and, over the next eight years, moved from teacher to administrator.
As principal at Westinghouse in 1999, he helped spearhead a radical change in the school's focus, moving away from jewelry repair and carpentry to advanced computer programming and design. He built partnerships with local colleges and businesses. When parents fretted about the pace of these changes, Brizard won them over, telling them that nothing was more important than getting kids the skills they needed.
"I think once parents heard him talk about 21st century careers that businesses were looking for and heard him speak in an intelligent thoughtful way, they quickly became his allies," said Rose Albanese-De Pinto, who hired Brizard as principal at Westinghouse.
In 2003, then-New York City School Superintendent Joel Klein promoted Brizard to the district headquarters, where he eventually became a regional superintendent to oversee curriculum, planning and school closures. His decision to shutter a struggling Brooklyn high school sparked outrage among parents and politicians, but he withstood it.
"If you're going to take a tough stand on certain issues, talking about closing down schools, which he did, or talking about teachers' evaluations, you're going to rock some boats," Klein said. "(Brizard) understands that."
Brizard was accepted in 2007 into the Eli Broad Superintendents Academy, a management training program that has produced administrators at some of the country's largest urban school districts, including Los Angeles, Boston and New York. As a Broad fellow, Brizard was part of a new wave of reform-minded educators whose data-driven, business-centered approach and support of school choice and strict teacher accountability are often at odds with union leadership.
When he arrived in Rochester, a chronically under-performing district of 34,000 students, Brizard tapped into his Broad training, promising to boost graduation rates and test scores, particularly among African-American and Latino students. But almost immediately he rankled longtime district employees by demanding stricter teacher evaluations and linking their pay to student performance.
Other initiatives — such as pushing for a longer school year, reducing suspensions to keep kids in school and laying off more than 100 teachers — prompted teachers to file numerous grievances with the Rochester Teachers Association and, ultimately, led them to give him a no-confidence vote. Brizard also found himself at the center of two ongoing federal lawsuits over his handling of teacher discipline and the firing of a longtime district employee who accused him of discriminating against her because she was an older African-American woman.
Even Brizard's wife, K. Brooke Stafford-Brizard, a politically connected insider from New York state, became a source of controversy when she began working to build a charter school in Rochester.
With his support cracking, Brizard abruptly announced he was leaving Rochester for Chicago — a move friends and critics say froze many of his reform efforts. The district is $80 million in debt, about half of its schools are failing federal academic standards, and the rising graduation rate Brizard once touted as an accomplishment is only marginally higher.
"I have a real problem with people who come here to make names for themselves but not to bring reforms that have lasting impact," said Rochester school board member Cynthia Elliot. "I think many people feel betrayed."
The stakes are higher in Chicago, but already Brizard's resolve and positive attitude are winning support from education insiders. And he's planning listening tours with teachers and students in coming weeks, hoping to build connections here that he lost in Rochester.
"He is calm. He listens. His is unflappable under pressure," said Timothy Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago. "When you're going to be doing some heavy lifting … that kind of leadership is a key part of the equation."
Brizard said he never shies away from a battle, just as long as the fight makes sense.
"It's why I will stand in front of a group of people and get yelled at if we know this is ultimately good for kids," Brizard said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun