By the Company It Keeps: Jean-Claude Brizard

Jean-Claude Brizard

I met Jean-Claude Brizard almost four years ago when he was leading the school district of Rochester. After talking to him for about an hour, I was so impressed that I became convinced he was destined for even bigger things.

Born in Haiti and reared in New York City, Brizard is a career educator. He was a student in the Big Apple’s public schools and eventually became a teacher, principal, and district executive in that same system. He graduated from the Broad Superintendents Academy, Class of 2007, was recruited to Rochester, and then, in 2011, was scooped up by incoming Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to become CEO of the Windy City’s school district, the third largest in the nation. Brizard is now a senior advisor at College Board, working with an extraordinary leadership team alongside David Coleman, an author and ardent advocate for the Common Core State Standards.

Jean-Claude knows the ins and outs of urban districts as well as anyone around today, and those experiences have left him skeptical about the century-old institutional arrangements in place in virtually all American cities. He has endured some of the toughest political episodes with unmatched dignity. What struck me most during my initial conversations with Jean-Claude—and since—was on full public display during his most challenging times in Rochester and Chicago. He has that magical combination of utter confidence and genuine humility that produces an approachable posture and a near Zen-like calm.  People gravitate to Jean-Claude, and he treats them with kindness and respect once they’re in his orbit.

From his compelling personal story to his numerous major accomplishments to his necessary public scuffles with the establishment, Jean-Claude is an exemplar for our field: His narrative embodies the promise of public schooling; demonstrates the great thing that smarts, hard work, and decency can produce; and reveals why we ought to have enormous urgency about changing urban districts that simply don’t work for millions of disadvantaged kids.

I’m proud to call Jean-Claude a friend, and our field is fortunate to keep his inspiring company.

You were born in Haiti, and that nation’s dictator had a member of your family imprisoned. How did your experience with that kind of oppression, and your subsequent immigration to America, influence your thinking?

I was born under the rule of Papa Doc Duvalier, one of the most brutal despots in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Duvalier and his secret police—the Tonton Macoute—murdered tens of thousands of Haitians and imprisoned tens of thousands of others, often for crimes no greater than speaking out against injustice. One of those political prisoners was my grandfather, who was a classical music conductor and used his position in front of a captive audience to speak out against injustice. In 1970, fearful that they might soon face arrest, my parents—both educators—fled Haiti, leaving me and my siblings with my grandmother until they finally were able to move the rest of the family to the U.S. in 1976.

My parents taught me to see the world through a social-justice lens, never to compromise my core values, and to always see opportunity as limitless. They sacrificed to get us to America and I will always work to honor their legacy and the gift of opportunity that they afforded me. It is my fondest hope that someday every child in America will grow up with that same sense of hope.

You are a product of New York City public schools and then became a teacher, principal, and ultimately a regional superintendent in that system. How would you describe the district’s evolution from your days as a student in the 1970s to today?

Wow, I feel old. I walked into Lefferts Intermediate School #61 in Brooklyn in 1976. It was a wild and dysfunctional place. From what I could tell the whole system was in disarray. I was literally saved by one teacher who took a number of us non-English speaking students under his wing. I will forever be grateful to Mr. Cherarsard.

Obtaining a teaching license in NYC in late 1986 is a story for another day (my performance tasks to secure a high school teaching license in Chemistry involved writing a 500-word essay and making salt disappear). My primary goal as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal in several schools in NYC was always to find ways to shelter my classroom and school from the central office dysfunction.

We watched chancellors come and go, and frankly worked hard to keep “Puzzle Palace” —NYC headquarters—away from our schools. There were exceptions of course, unsung heroes and exceptional leaders who developed some of us as teachers and leaders. Changing leadership at the top and the antics of the school board were evening-news entertainment. There was Chancellor Green, who died too soon after taking office; Chancellor Fernandez and his focus on school-based management; Chancellor Cortines and his now-famous “no more bonehead math” headline (after catching a math teacher asleep in a classroom…the tip came from a student). Over time we learned that the central office would churn, but seldom would we, school-based people, be affected.

One change, however, that held our attention was the move to mayoral control and a billionaire mayor appointing a former anti-trust attorney as chancellor. It all looked strange but this new chancellor’s focus on principals and empowerment had many of us glued to our emails, fax machines (yes), and the evening news.  The launch of Children First in 2002-2003 and the dissolution of the 32 school districts, plus five high school districts was an educational earthquake in NYC.

When you were superintendent of Rochester City School District, the union leader orchestrated a no-confidence vote in you. What led to that, and how did you respond?

Adam Urbanksi convinced me to take the job as superintendent in Rochester. He was known nationally as a union reformer. It did not take long for my team to realize that it was all empty rhetoric. We disagreed immediately on several key issues such as keeping middle-school children in school while high schoolers were being tested. We had a series of major flare-ups. One of the loudest protests that he orchestrated aimed to stop me from abolishing out-of-school suspensions.

The system was averaging  approximately 17,000 suspensions a year (in a district of approximately 32,000 students). Nearly 50 percent of the students being suspended were students with disabilities, and almost all were black and Latino males. In addition to this moral dilemma, we were violating federal IDEA rules. The final straw came when I refused to settle a contract and allow raises for teachers without a differentiated pay and accountability structure in place.

I was more worried about being labeled “anti-teacher” than the vote because I come from a family of teachers. My board stayed strong and almost all were very supportive of me. My press secretary and I were prepared and we released a side-by-side comparison of Mr. Urbanski’s historical rhetoric and our reform efforts showing near uniform alignment. I released an additional (sort of cranky) statement stating in part that I had no confidence in empty rhetoric, only work that supported children. The next morning, I looked in the mirror, knowing that I was on the side of good and made my way to classrooms and schools across the city. I engaged teachers directly to clearly show that the work will continue, that I would not capitulate, and that I was in charge of my school district.

You were superintendent of Chicago Public Schools when the teachers union went on strike for the first time in 25 years. It’s hard to imagine a more stressful, all-consuming situation for a leader in our field. Personally, how did you weather those days? If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?

I spent the day before the strike baptizing my youngest son at an amazing church in the Englewood section of Chicago. The presiding priest, Father Michael Pfleger, is a courageous Jesuit. His audacity in the face of life-threatening challenges always gave me strength. While the strike was made more difficult by a growing rift between city hall and me, I spent the week managing two key initiatives. We open centers around the city to serve as safe havens for students using mostly non-union staff, community-based organizations, city parks and libraries. The coordination was massive. I also wanted to ensure that negotiations were continuing, and because of the growing rift, my board chair took over as lead for negotiations. We talked often and I worked hard to ensure that we did not waiver on key issues. As you can imagine the pressure to capitulate was intense.

It was an extremely difficult week but calls and emails from colleagues around the country as well as my amazingly supportive wife sustained me. It takes a ton of inner strength to watch 4,000+ people in red shirts outside of your window protesting while a very heavy police presence looked on.

I reflect often on my experience in Chicago.  We did an enormous amount of outreach to community, and I spent my weekends and evenings engaging teachers and community members directly. I spoke to no less than 20,000 teachers in the year leading up to the strike. It was still not enough. We severely underestimated the ability of the Chicago Teachers’ Union to lead a massive grassroots campaign against our administration. It’s a lesson for all of us in the reform community. The “how” is at times more important than the “what”. We need to get closer to the people we are serving and create the demand for change in our communities.

You recently wrote, “Whether or not the replacement of the school district is the answer, we need to be brave enough to dispose of the structures and strategies that have failed so many for decades and have no chance of preparing our students for the future.” What structures and strategies were you talking about?

There are too many to list but let’s start by agreeing that the current structure is not working and is unsustainable. Let’s start by believing that the school is the unit of change. Therefore our reform efforts must pivot on the school-building leader who must understand that s/he is the primary human capital manager.

In the absence of a compelling reason to retain control centrally, school leaders, as the primary agents of change, should have freedom and flexibility over how best to use their resources (time, people, and money) to create meaningful changes that directly impact students. Let’s start by believing that operating within a clear framework of standards for student success, highly effective school leaders must use their resources to develop effective practices and innovative school designs, to best meet the needs of their students. Let’s start by believing that highly effective teachers must reinforce high expectations for all students and that they are responsible for (and should be supported to) provide instruction that is standards-aligned, student-centered, engaging, and data-informed.

The paradigm shift must include a new look at governance at all levels—school boards, mayoral control, etc.—looking at the best structure to support our agents of change.

Why did you decide to work for the College Board? What do you hope to accomplish there?

I had a number of opportunities after leaving Chicago, but I came to the College Board because of one person—David Coleman. He said to me, “The world does not need another advocate. The world needs solutions.” David is working to bring solutions to our nation’s schools, to close not just the access to rigor gap, but to also close the success gap. We are doing well on the former, but not so well on the latter. I wanted to go to a place where social activism was alive and one that is focused on bringing solutions to our teachers and district leaders.

You fly airplanes recreationally. Why did you decide to learn, and why do you still do it?

I am a private pilot with instrument and commercial ratings. I started taking lessons nearly fifteen years ago to conquer a fear of heights. It did not work, but flying provides an amazing escape for me and allows me to see the world from very different perspectives. Imagine flying to Martha’s Vineyard, or Nantucket for a bike ride, or Kalamazoo from Chicago for a quick bite to eat. 

In addition to being an educator and pilot, you’re a husband and dad. What’s the perfect Saturday in the Brizard family?

I have an amazing wife. She keeps me grounded. A perfect Saturday starts with a breakfast outing with my children (in Chicago it was to an awesome place called Bakin’ & Eggs), followed by an hour or two at the park. An afternoon nap gives me a chance with the New York Times or the Washington Post. The day continues with a late afternoon walk along the Mall in D.C. or spending time at the Smithsonian or the National Archives. A really great Saturday will end with a sitter and the adult Brizards finding a great table at a favorite restaurant.

What was it like working for Rahm Emanuel? Please, please, please give us at least one colorful story about the mayor.

MRE—Mayor Rahm Emanuel—is an interesting man. I received a ton of advice on how to work with and for him, but in hindsight, few of these pieces of advice were helpful. MRE was always “on” and a master at managing media. He is actually best when he is not on stage. My best meeting with him was off stage, away from the lights at a private table in a steakhouse. He was thoughtful, funny, and caring. While I never experienced the man with the “reputation,” I certainly can see that possible side. I experienced a man who loves his family dearly and is frustrated by the challenges of a school system in crisis and a crime situation that is making international headlines.

MRE and I disagreed on process at times, and it was unfortunate that he never really got to know me. I appreciated his leadership, but his one challenge is to learn to let go and allow his managers to lead.    

You know as well as anyone the challenges of being an urban superintendent. But if the next mayor of New York City calls you on the day after his/her election and said simply, “Jean-Claude, the Big Apple has the largest school district in America, and that system educated you and then employed you for two decades. I’d like you to be the next chancellor of New York City Public Schools.” What are the first words out of your mouth?

Ha, this is a tough one!

Convince me that you will provide the bold leadership needed to continue the reform work in the city that I love so much. Convince me that you will give me the autonomy and support needed to continue some of the great work and change some of the ones that have not worked so well. Finally, help me explain to my family that they have to move again.

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