When state legislators passed a law in 2009 requiring clear guidelines for school closings in Chicago, the goal was simple: to bring transparency and community input into decisions about vital public institutions. But the law didn’t stop complaints on the heels of the recent announcement that CPS plans to turn around a record 10 schools next year.The 10 include six that will be managed by the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership. Four schools will be closed, a number that officials point out is fewer than they wanted to close.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis immediately took aim at the actions, and the union geared up for battle by hosting an anti-closings “teach-in” attended by hundreds of union members, community activists and parents.

Editor in Chief Lorraine Forte and Deputy Editor Sarah Karp talked with CEO Jean-Claude Brizard (and his Chief of Portfolio Oliver Sicat) about the CTU-CPS relationship, closings and turnarounds, charters, school funding and getting good teachers when a school is failing.


CATALYST: In the public eye, you and the union appear to always be at loggerheads. Is the relationship different on a day-to-day basis? 

BRIZARD: The media makes it worse than it actually is. We are very cordial to each other. We have pretty good conversations. 

CATALYST:      What do you talk about?

BRIZARD:  We talk about issues of teacher’s lives. For instance, I actually appreciate the conversation [on], how do you fix that school?  Is it turnaround?  Is it closure?  Is it something else?  We disagree on process. You can argue about how, but the one thing I don’t want anyone to argue about is what. If a school has been failing for 14 years, something has got to be done, and it can’t be incremental.  Let’s not argue about what, but about how. Let’s not argue that there is a need to make change. 

CATALYST: When we’ve asked how many teachers are getting laid off because of closings or turnarounds, the answer has been, “This is not about the teachers.  It’s about the kids.”  But by stating that, aren’t you making things worse with the union? Teachers are human beings. 

BRIZARD:  I totally understand that. I’m not independently wealthy.  At the same time, if I were to sit back and worry about every teacher or principal or custodian or food service worker, I wouldn’t be focused on what I was hired to do, which is to save the educational lives of a lot of kids. I have to focus on what is most important. 

It’s hard to give numbers because 70% of the [laid- off] teachers have found jobs in other parts of the city.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t care.

Let me give you an example.  When I was a teacher at Westinghouse High School [in Brooklyn], our classrooms were islands.  We tried to keep order in a place that was pretty difficult. Talk to anyone who taught there–they’ll tell you it was a difficult building. It was on the chopping block a number of times.  As a teacher, I would [have been concerned about] my job and my family’s future, but I would have said to myself and to anyone, it makes sense.  Because while there were islands of excellence, the building itself was not performing. 

It never closed, fortunately.  When I became principal, I knew the school was on the chopping block. I began removing ineffective people, from school aides to guidance counselors to assistant principals. I think we rescued that school.  But what I’m saying is that as a teacher, I would have said [closing] makes sense.  I would have applied someplace else, maybe the same school. But it made sense.


CATALYST:      What is your reaction to the Chicago facilities task force? They want to meet with you and said you didn’t have clear criteria for closing decisions.

BRIZARD: We met with them a number of times, from the get-go. Our process actually went beyond the law. We’re doing a very similar process with turnarounds that we didn’t have to do by law.  We met with community more than is required by the law. What’s in the law makes sense. But to me, we did much more.

The call for a moratorium, that’s unrealistic. 400-plus kids were killed in this city over the past few years, and I’ll be the first to tell you, I think there is a direct correlation between kids dropping out or being pushed out of school, and crime in the city.  So do we sit back?  In good conscience, I couldn’t do that.  Two years from now, after a moratorium, are they going to say we did nothing to fix the schools?

CATALYST:  There are more schools that are low-performing and small, so maybe you should have closed more. How are you going to close the budget gap without closing these schools?

BRIZARD:  It has nothing to do with the budget.

CATALYST:      But it does, because you’re keeping a building open.  You’re paying people.  You’re heating it.

BRIZARD:  I get that, but this was not our focus. 

CATALYST: But looking ahead, how will you ever balance the budget without closing more schools that you know are bad and too small?

BRIZARD: This goes back to my experience on closure. I closed half the high schools in the city of Rochester, right?  The noise was minimal. My facilities task force– very different from the one here–launched the closure of two elementary schools based on efficiency [and] looked at ways of moving schools into those places. Those schools were lousy performing. They were war zones. The [uproar] was unbelievable.

I argued with those [on the task force]–never do that. This is not about efficiency.  We’re talking about kids’ lives here.

I’m not saying that we don’t have a problem in terms of our footprint being way too big.  It’s something we have to address over time.  But I’m saying very simply that our focus has been around quality. I didn’t want to move kids from here to there, based just on efficiency. 

CATALYST: A lot of schools met the criteria.  So how did you choose one school as opposed to another?  You didn’t just take the bottom four. But when you don’t do that, then people start saying “Why this building?” 

SICAT: You’re right. But going back to what Jean-Claude just said, there are many schools surrounded by other schools that are just as low-performing.  We didn’t want to go to the bottom of the list, close the school and then disperse [students] into another school that’s low-performing or doesn’t have the capacity to take on those students.  Those are two big issues. 


CATALYST:      Why not go to the bottom four schools and say, OK, we don’t have anywhere to move students. We’re turning you around.

BRIZARD: Not every school can be turned around.

CATALYST: Why not, if you’re bringing in a new principal and new teachers?

BRIZARD:  There are times you have an environment that is so bad, it would take years to turn around.

CATALYST: Even if you take out every adult in the building? 

BRIZARD:  Absolutely. There are some educators in this country who believe you can’t turn around any school.

When you look at what we did in New York, in high schools, we did not turn around [any] in the first years of the Children First initiative.  Everything was a closure and a complete restart.

I’m saying that there are people who believe that you need to change your student body, teachers, principal-all of the above. Most people who do this kind of [educational] work will not do turnarounds, which is why it’s so difficult to find operators.

The transformation model being pushed by the feds, I guarantee you’re going to see press down the road saying it’s been a failure. (With transformation, a school gets extra money to improve with the existing principal and teachers.)

CATALYST:      That goes to what happened with Tilden. They got a federal transformation grant, and now you’re turning them around. What happened there?

BRIZARD: When you transform, you basically [take] people who have not done work well as a group and say, “Go ahead and fix yourself.” It’s very hard for someone to transform themselves. 

I got $300,000 [in federal money] over three years to turn Westinghouse around.  It was a drop in the bucket [compared] to what I had to do.  It was slow, painful. The school is still not where it should be.  Wouldn’t it have been easier for me to start over? 

Some schools cannot be turned around because the environment is so far gone.  Could it be done in a decade?  Maybe. But none of us have the time to wait 10 years. 

CATALYST:      To tell you the truth, that actually does floor me. I just don’t see how you could say if you take all the adults and replaced them, there’s nothing that you can do for that school.

BRIZARD: Let me go back to Guggenheim.  You’ve got an environment that is in terrible condition.  You’ve got parents who are voting with their feet, the school is half empty. You have very, very low achievement. There’s a decent principal who is working very hard. You see pockets of greatness in that school, but as a whole, the principal will tell you, it’s a struggle.  So you have a combination of a lot of things that say, “Is this a place worth pouring $40 million or $50 million dollars into to make better, when there is a solution nearby that makes so much more sense and is already on a trajectory for improvement?” 


CATALYST:      What do you tell a principal who comes into your office and says, “Look, I’ve been really trying. I know my school might get shut down.  How am I supposed to get some teachers in here that I know are good?” 

BRIZARD: I’ll tell you what I’ve done. I was at schools that were very difficult to get people into. I start with the people that I know are ready.  They create a model classroom, and I begin to show the others. When I’m recruiting someone to my building, they are part of my interview team. 

But if my school is that far on the bottom and I have no one, it’s very, very difficult.  So maybe a principal says, “I need a turnaround.”

CATALYST:   Have you had principals come in and say, if I could fire 10 people, I could fix the school, I want a turnaround?


CATALYST: How many people have done that?

BRIZARD: That’s the problem.  We have a lot more need than we have capacity, which is why part of our strategy is to not only increase the capacity of the Office of School Improvement and AUSL, but look for new people to help us.  And yes, it includes charters.  Good charters.


CATALYST:      That goes to a question about charters, in Chicago specifically. Some have attendance boundaries, where half the seats go to kids in that neighborhood.  Should more charters have that?

SICAT: In some cases, yes.  It all depends on the local context.  If there are no schools nearby where students can go and we want to use a charter, and the autonomy that charters have, to create something of a neighborhood school, that makes sense. 

In some places it doesn’t make sense because there are enough neighborhood schools. But yes–we definitely think about that on a case-by-case basis.

CATALYST:      Are there any charters that you think might have attendance boundaries next year?

SICAT:  We are currently working on a potential attendance boundary.  Because we know we could use a neighborhood school with our Crane phase-out.  (Crane is on the Near West Side.)

CATALYST:      On the bottom of the transition report given out to the Crane students was a notice of some meetings in January for them to have a choice of new schools. Will you be talking about charter schools in that meeting? Someone said to me, “They’re just going to steer all these kids to the charter schools.”

BRIZARD:  That’s not the intent. Charters are not a panacea. Most [students] in that area are going elsewhere in the city already. The kids who want Crane can stay there until graduation.  But if the school gets to 40 [students] three years from now, I’m going to have to find something else for them.  Because I cannot in good conscience keep 40 kids in a building. 


CATALYST: Community people complain about schools getting unequal funding.  One way to equalize that is something that your predecessors talked about but never did anything about: per-pupil budgeting.  Is that something that you want to do?

BRIZARD: Yes and no. In terms of the perception, I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but it certainly is real.

At the O’Hare School Network, I met with a bunch of parents, mostly middle class–teachers, firefighters, police officers. They’re not people who are making a lot of money.  (The network includes parts of the far north and northwest sides.) The biggest noise I got from the aldermen, from the state representative, from the state senator, was that the community has been short-changed. They don’t get [federal] Title I funding.  They don’t get parents who are pouring money into the school, like perhaps at Lincoln Park Elementary. Go to Lincoln Park–every teacher has a Mac Book. The parents have purchased it. 

There are places where parents are pouring in money.  Poor communities can’t do that, but poor communities tend to get Title I funding.  Middle-class [areas] like O’Hare don’t get that.  They get nothing. 

I do intend to dollarize the budget.

CATALYST:      What does that mean?

BRIZARD: I want to give schools dollar amounts in different buckets.  This way, they can make the best decisions. 

CATALYST:      Okay.

BRIZARD:  If you give per-pupil funding, it is an average across the city. There is an incentive for certain people to lose older, more expensive teachers for younger, less expensive teachers.  Initially, what I want to do is fund schools based average teacher salary, so you hold [schools] harmless.

CATALYST: Explain that.

BRIZARD:  If you take every teacher in the city, the average salary is about $80,000. So you fund schools based on that amount.  There is no incentive to hire cheaper teachers or let go of more expensive teachers.  This way, you look at quality first.  That’s a way to start.  This way, you give principals flexibility. 


CATALYST:      You said in the past that you planned to increase the amount given to charter schools next year. Is that happening? 

BRIZARD: We intend to bring charters to parity, to equity in the system.  What that means exactly is something that we’re still working on, but we intend to do that. (Note: Chicago has now joined a national charter initiative funded by the Gates Foundation to foster more collaboration and equal funding between district and charter schools.)

CATALYST:      Do you want to make the process harder here to get a charter? You say it’s tougher in New York. Shouldn’t Chicago have the same process?

BRIZARD: I want to move to a single accountability system. 

CATALYST:      Meaning?

BRIZARD:  We’ll issue [the same] progress reports for everybody.  This way parents don’t get confused. We want to create a system that makes it easier for parents and for the public to digest the information.  We want to make it easy for people to gauge quality, to make informed decisions.

CATALYST: Any last observations?

BRIZARD: You hear people saying, give us more time. In all honesty, we have a real [educational] problem in this city. 

CATALYST:      Worse than you thought when you first came?

BRIZARD:  The job is worse than I thought, oh yeah. But I knew there were issues. You don’t come without doing your homework. 

CATALYST:  That brings up the NAEP scores, which have barely moved at all. What do you tell people about that?

BRIZARD:  We’ve been telling people that not much has moved systemically. There have been some great things done in Chicago.  People ask me, what is your criticism of the past?  I offer no criticism, but I’ll argue that the reforms have not been comprehensive enough.

Headshot of Sarah Karp

Sarah Karp

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

Lorraine Forte

Lorraine is the executive editor of The Chicago Reporter. Email her at lforte@chicagoreporter.com.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.