Queens College Alum Jean-Claude Brizard Takes the Helm of Public Schools in the Windy City


On May 26, Jean-Claude Brizard ’85, ’90 MSEd, the controversial choice for CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, spent his first morning back in the classroom. The former science teacher bent his 6-foot-5 frame down to observe laptop science at the elementary school level and later talked with 8th graders and chemistry students about their lives.

A reformer and champion of an all-out campaign to save a generation of students, Brizard planned to visit a school a day during his listening sessions with stakeholders. While touting the Intel scholarship winners, “We can’t forget about the kids who are struggling to survive,” he emphasizes during a phone interview.

Science classes and labs are familiar turf. “One thing I learned as a chemistry major at Queens College is that systems are the answer,” the CEO says. He also holds a master’s degree in science education from QC and a master’s in school administration and supervision from City College of New York. “I’m a CUNY kid,” Brizard affirms. “I grew up in the New York City school system.”

His 21-year trajectory in the Department of Education propelled Brizard from substitute teacher in Queens to regional superintendent, along the way serving as junior high science teacher, physics teacher, principal, and executive director for secondary schools. In 2007 he completed leadership training at the Broad Superintendents Academy. The following January he became superintendent of the Rochester City School District.

Among his accomplishments upstate, Brizard points to increasing the rate of Regents graduations and dramatically decreasing the 17,000 annual suspensions through an in-school approach. However, disagreements over discipline policies, merit pay, charter schools, program cuts, school closings, and other issues led to his first battle with a teachers union. The Rochester Teachers Association voted 95 percent “no confidence” in Brizard last February. Becoming a lightning rod for their anger was difficult for an educator who describes himself as a “teacher’s teacher” who supports teachers unions. But the experience reinforced “certain core values that I was not willing to negotiate away,” he notes.

In April, when the Chicago Board of Education appointed Brizard as CEO of its much larger system, former Obama White House Chief of Staff and Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel commented: “He’s not afraid of tough choices, and that is what Chicago’s students need today.” Frying pan, meet the fire. The Rochester district has 32,000 students, 52 percent of its 58 schools don’t meet federal testing standards, and 92 percent of its high school graduates in 2009 were minorities. The Chicago district has 409,278 students, almost 90 percent minority, and 80 percent of its 675 schools fell short of those federal standards.

Knowing what it’s like to live in public housing and be bullied, Brizard is keenly aware of the value of mentors and education in steering for the stars. That has increased his determination to close the opportunity gap.

In Haiti, where Brizard was born, his father was a principal and his mother a teacher. Fearing imprisonment under dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, they fled to the United States in 1970. Unable to bring their three children, the couple left them in Haiti with their grandmother and aunt for six years. When Brizard was 12, the family settled in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and later in Queens. His parents’  “teaching credentials didn’t mean a lot” here, Brizard says, so his father worked in a factory, an airport, and public transit, and his mother became a nurse’s aide.

Brizard did well at Springfield Gardens HS, graduating at 16. As immigrants, he relates, his parents thought choosing a college was similar to the high school process. Without even visiting campus, says Brizard, “We just picked the school closest to home”: Queens College. “I got there by accident, but I had a fantastic education,” he enthuses. He was going to major in biology, “but then I took a chemistry course. I liked the idea of chemical reactions and loved the quantitative nature of the physical sciences. There were courses at Queens that really beat me up, but I came back at it. I never gave up.”

“I fell into teaching because my mom convinced me to give it a shot,” observes Brizard. In 1985, the New York schools deployed him to Rikers Island to teach detainees. There, “I saw what happens when the system did not work for kids—not just the educational system but the entire society,” he recalls. “Somehow, it gave me not just the courage but the moral imperative” to teach. “When I went to Rochester, one of the first places I visited was the county jail. It reminds you of how important this work is.”

In Chicago, Brizard faces a massive budget deficit and a possible teachers union battle. High priorities for him are performance-based leadership rewards, “really changing the way we look at teacher education,” and “leveraging the profession.” That means moving away from basing teacher pay on “years of experience and how many credits they have,” but doing so “in collaboration with the union and parents, in open conversation,” he says.

As one option, Brizard supports charter schools. His wife, Brooke Stafford-Brizard, also an educator, is launching one in Rochester. “I’m a huge proponent of choice, but for many parents, it’s a false choice,” says Brizard, noting that many can access only the school closest to their home.

“The U.S. has a 19th-century educational model, and it’s not working,” he states candidly. He wants his team to consider the next-generation classroom to reach young people immersed in multimedia. He has half-seriously proposed to his leadership team that “we should all put our kids in the worst school in the city and force it to become better.”

For any public figure “in this kind of environment,” says Brizard, “it’s too easy to get lost. I try to stay very, very grounded.” That is, except when he is making use of his private pilot’s license. Being a father and husband definitely helps that balance. The couple has an 18-month-old son; Brizard also has a 10-year-old daughter from his first marriage.

Thinking of every American’s child’s future, Brizard says that if he could do one thing to change public education, it would be to “stop the infighting,” to reduce the “angst and division within the profession” and find ways for “a concrete dialogue to take place.” In Chicago, “not much has been done with how teachers connect. If we can do that well, bring a level of coherence and consistency to how we do things, fix the system, make it work, this district will be one of the best in the country.”

For more about Queens College visit http://www.qc.cuny.edu/Pages/default.aspx  

Contact: Phyllis Cohen Stevens
Deputy Director of News Services

Maria Matteo
Assistant Director of News Services