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.
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.
Jean-Claude Brizard, Chicago's new schools chief, doesn't back down from a challenge
Jean-Claude Brizard, Chicago Public Schools' fourth chief executive since 2009, sees in Chicago an opportunity to succeed where he failed in Rochester
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