Saturday, November 24, 2007

Brizard readies for superintendent job

Gary McLendon
Staff writer

(November 24, 2007) — Jean-Claude Brizard will have a lot of moves to make when he becomes superintendent of the City School District in January. First he has to get here.

The transition from interim Superintendent William Cala to Brizard is a work in progress.

Brizard's contract negotiations are still under way. The school board must officially vote to name him superintendent Thursday. And his starting date, projected to be Jan. 2, is not yet final.

Weeks before that, he and Cala will publicly answer questions about the school district's leadership transition.

The forum is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 13.

About to embark on his first job as a superintendent, Brizard, 44, comes with ambitious goals and enthusiastic supporters — but also controversy and criticism.

Among his strongest supporters is Tim Quinn, managing director for The Broad Academy, a national superintendent training program.

Quinn said Brizard was easily in the top 10 percent of the academy's hundreds of graduates.

"He has a passion for this work and serving underserved kids," Quinn said. "He has a comprehensive understanding of not only what is important to do this work, but how to do it on the ground."

Brizard will need to.

In Rochester, which leads the state in poverty and violence rates, children dodge tragedy in the streets before and after school and live with it at home. The school district's 39 percent four-year graduation rate is the lowest in the state.

In a telephone interview this week, Brizard amplified points he made during a public forum last month about improving the academic outcomes of the district's nearly 34,000 students.

"When I look at Rochester, I see the biggest issues are in grades seven through 12. I see huge achievement loss in grades six and seven," Brizard said. "I know what works in terms of raising graduation rates."

Brizard said he intends to attack educational shortfalls at their roots; increase the number of children enrolled in prekindergarten; support children particularly in grades four through nine; hold principals accountable for meeting students' academic needs; and improve the graduation rate by focusing on technical career skills and helping students for whom English is not their first language.

Brizard also said he would bolster school security and encourage parents to become partners with schools.

Unpopular closure

Brizard is leaving the New York City Department of Education, where he has been the senior executive for policy and sustainability for less than a year; and before that was Region 6 superintendent, in charge of 100 K-12 schools with 100,000 students. That position was phased out by a district restructuring less than two years after Brizard began the job. While in that position, Brizard closed Samuel J. Tilden High School and phased in two smaller high schools within the same building.

Although Tilden's academic performance was mediocre, it had one of the few Haitian-Creole bilingual education programs in New York City. Community members and school staff said the school was not performing worse than some schools that were not being closed and asserted that district leaders weren't giving the school's new principal enough time to implement academic improvements.

Tilden bilingual education teacher John Lawhead said that closing the school would shift high-risk students, who were recent immigrants, to overcrowded Haitian-Creole bilingual programs at three other Brooklyn high schools.

Lawhead said Brizard represented ineffectual leadership in an "extremely top-down" operation. "He was kind of a front man for Superintendent Joel Klein."

"He came into our school saying the school was to close. It was obvious he didn't have a role in the decision at all," Lawhead said. "I can't describe how out of touch he was with people's feelings here, staff members, people who had gone to the school, people in the community."

Brizard said he played a large role in deciding to close Tilden. He said there was "absolutely no truth" to the charge that he, or the district, autocratically flipped the school upside down.

"I talked to teachers about how they felt about the school. We found hard-working teachers," he said, adding that he also found a number of apathetic people in a variety of roles who had given up.

"We saw the projections (for school academic performance). The trajectory did not show any substantial gains possible. It was slow incremental gains."

Brizard, who is a native of Haiti, said that as a teenager he pulled himself up through help from New York's bilingual public school program.

Brizard said he didn't close Tilden without first finding a way to bypass the practice of not providing English Language Learner programs in new high schools for the first two years.

One of the new schools "will replace the seats for the Haitian kids," said Brizard. "We did that at another school. At South Shore (high school) we made sure to replace what existed."

Lawhead said English Language Learner classes are continuing in the new schools and between 200 and 300 older students may graduate. However, he added that under the transition students won't have as many subject classes in their native language. He said the school has seen "a lot of kids transfer."

Qualms and praise

In Rochester, Brizard's bid for the superintendency hasn't been without political turbulence. And the school board's vote to officially name him on Thursday may not be unanimous.

Cynthia Elliott, the only school board member who chose not to attend the news conference announcing Brizard's selection, said she was not opposed to him but wanted to retain Cala for a few more months, perhaps as a deputy superintendent, so he could finish the cleanup job he's done in the district.

"I have until the 29th to change this," said Elliott, referring to her push to name Cala deputy superintendent.

Board Vice President Malik Evans said Elliott's request to keep Cala has not been discussed.

Two board members-elect, Melisza Campos and Allen Williams, said they were allowed to sit in on board discussions about superintendent candidates — and have nothing against Brizard — but would have liked to have had a vote.

"I am somewhat disappointed I didn't have much of a role other than as an observer for the most part," Williams said. "I felt we should be casting our votes because we will be working with the new superintendent for the next four years and two of (the current board members) won't be working with him at all."

Campos said she wished "the decision could have been postponed until Allen and I were on the board."

Brizard has the support of most of the current board members as well as of Mayor Robert Duffy, Cala and state Education Department Commissioner Richard Mills.

"I'm going to welcome him as a partner. ... I would hope that myself and Mr. Brizard can form a very strong working relationship and again put kids first," Duffy said.

Mills said: "He's a very committed urban educator, very experienced in New York City. He had a good record in turning around a high school, one that was low-performance. Rochester had a choice of good leaders. Very often, people act as if leadership is scarce. It's not. I think they picked a good education leader."

Brizard, meanwhile, says, "we're very close on a contract" — and he is readying himself for Rochester.

He'll soon be house-hunting and plans to marry fiancée Katherine Brooke Stafford this summer. An education researcher, she currently is the director of strategy and evaluation for the New York City school district and plans to look for work here.

Brizard, a commercially licensed pilot, said he's also looking to join a flying club.

He'll have to make trips to Long Island to see his daughter, Nyah, 6, who will continue living with her mother.

Brizard said cruising at 5,000 to 10,000 feet in the sky is relaxing — but also relates to running a school district.

"When I was doing my instrument reading, my instructor told me: 'Before a crash, there's a previous sequence of events. You have to stay ahead of the airplane, always looking to see what is coming at you.'

"Very often, when we look a district that's been declining for years, it happened because you did not see the signs."

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