Carol Felsenthal
On politics

A Chat with Jean-Claude Brizard, the Personal and Professional

Jean-Claude Brizard, 48, a big man at six feet five—“I’m too fat,” he tells me—was standing outside his office at Clark, just north of Adams, waiting for me as I arrived last Thursday for a sit-down interview. His musical accent reveals his Haiti origins, although he has been in the U.S. since 1976, when he arrived in New York as a 12-year-old. He has been a…

Jean-Claude BrizardJean-Claude Brizard, 48, a big man at six feet five—“I’m too fat,” he tells me—was standing outside his office at Clark, just north of Adams, waiting for me as I arrived last Thursday for a sit-down interview. His musical accent reveals his Haiti origins, although he has been in the U.S. since 1976, when he arrived in New York as a 12-year-old. He has been a physics teacher and a regional superintendent in New York, the top guy in the Rochester Public Schools before being interviewed and quickly hired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He says he doesn’t know how long he’ll stay here, but he has told his wife that this will be his last superintendency.

Here’s an edited transcript of our talk. Check back tomorrow for part two of my conversation with Brizard, in which he discusses his relationship with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, what it’s like to work for Rahm, and where he’ll send his son to school. [UPDATE: Part two is posted here.]

CF: Was being an educator a long-time goal of yours?
J-CB:
I wanted to become a cop in New York City. When I came out of college [Queen’s College with a major in chemistry] in 1985, I took the [officer’s] exam. I really wanted to work in the crime labs. I love chemistry. I love the whole idea of investigations and looking at crime scenes, so I really liked CSI, but there was no CSI in those days. Someone told me the best way to do it is to become a police officer, but I had to do a time on the streets of New York City and my mother had a fit. My mom said, “I’m not going to stay up at night wondering if you’re going to be killed. You’re not going to be a gendarme. Her experience with the Tonton Macoute in Haiti [His parents, both educators, fearing imprisonment under President Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, left Jean-Claude and his two siblings with family and arrived in New York in 1970]. She didn’t want to have that worry; didn’t do it. I almost applied to work for the DEA. I was a finalist for a job in New York. For some reason, I had this affinity for law enforcement during that period in my life. To this day I’m still a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. When I lived in New York, I was part of a flotilla on Long Island. 

CF: Given your interest in science, did you consider going to medical school?
J-CB:
I was a biology premed student my first year in college. Took one biology class, hated the laboratory, dissection, so I changed my major. Volunteered in a hospital for a week; didn’t like the smell. So I majored in chemistry. I much preferred being in a chemistry lab. I was always the kind of person who loved behind-the-scenes work. So this public face of work was never something I relished. I loved being number two. If you have a vision, I’ll be happy to implement it for you. I love execution.

CF: I was going to wait to ask you this, but you’ve provided the perfect lead-in. It’s beginning to be said of you and police superintendent Garry McCarthy that you’re there to implement a program designed by Mayor Emanuel. He always seems to be the public face, the person in the foreground of the photos. He tells you what to do and you do it?
J-CB:
McCarthy and I make a lot of decisions. We’re the ones driving the ship. Garry is a cop; I’m a teacher. I don’t think either of us relish the idea of being a public face. The mayor is always getting front and center, and of course the media likes to push him ahead of us. What drives me is my experience around teaching poor kids who don’t have a voice, who don’t know how to advocate for themselves. So that was my early experience as a teacher, and it informed me sort of who I am as a person. The limelight is not something I relish. Sometimes people will see me walk in, look the other way, look down, lost in my own thoughts. To Americans, it’s very important that you always look people in the eye. My wife, Brooke [K. Brooke Stafford-Brizard], whose father was a politician, actually at times coached me. I don’t look for public accolades. At the same time, I don’t mind being the public face, I don’t mind being yelled at in public because I know what we’re doing is right for kids. That’s what drives me. It’s completely okay with me if the mayor gets front and center. A lot of the ideas and what you see is driven by Garry and me. I have very good friends high up in the New York City Police Department. All of them said to me, “Chief McCarthy is a cop’s cop,” and I have yet to meet a police officer in New York who says a bad thing about him. Both of us in some ways are similar in that we like to do the work. We don’t care to be in the spotlight. I don’t mind being underestimated because it give you leverage. Throughout my career, it has helped me get what I want to get done.

CF: You wife’s father was a New York politician? Tell me about him—and about her.
J-CB:
My wife’s father [the late Ronald Stafford] was a New York state senator for 37 years, a Republican. My wife is a Democrat. He was probably the most powerful New York Republican politician for a very long time. He wrote some great legislation for New York state, especially around tuition assistance for college students, and I benefitted from that. He had real opportunities to go to Washington but never choose to, loved to worked for the poor in the Adirondacks—upstate. My wife is one of the more amazing people I know. She has a PhD from Columbia in cognitive studies in education. She was a Teach for America 1999 corps member, taught in the South Bronx. I met her at the New York City Department of Education, working for [former Chancellor] Joel Klein. Went with me to Rochester. Consulted in Rochester. Couldn’t come work for the district, both in the same field, conflict of interest.

CF: What’s she doing in Chicago?
J-CB:
Right now, nothing. She’s being recruited. In CPS she could be a teacher, but couldn’t be an executive. She’s not interested in working for CPS. One thing she might do is work for one of the universities. Some foundations have been talking to her. The challenge is we have a very young son [21 months old]. She’d like to be his mother as well.

CF: You have one child?
J-CB:
I have two children. A ten-year-old from my first marriage lives in Long Island with her mother.

CF: So how did you wife feel about moving to Chicago?
J-CB:
She has always wanted to live in Chicago. One of her best friends was a professor at the University of Chicago. We used to come twice a year. What was attractive to her about Chicago is you can live in the city and not live in Queens or Westchester County or Jersey, and you can be downtown in 10-15 minutes.

CF: Where are you living here?
J-CB:
We live in Lincoln Park. We plan to buy a house with a backyard in Lincoln Park; now we’re renting an apartment.

CF: So it sounds like your wife was a factor in your coming here.
J-CB:
When [former Chicago school chief] Arne Duncan left [to become Obama’s Secretary of Education], she said, “Well, why not look at Chicago?” I said Daley would never hire an educator to run the school system here. They never did a public search for a superintendent. I said we just got to Rochester; I gotta finish this. [He became superintendent there in January 2008]. I said to my wife, “Five years. Five years in Rochester, and we’ll settle outside of Boston. I’ll work in Boston proper.” I’m not a serial superintendent, so I really wanted one job. We liked the Boston area; my wife went to high school at the Concord Academy.

CF: How did it happen that you got the call to apply for the job here?
JC-B:
I got a cold call from a headhunter who was trying to get me to a number of different cities, Cleveland, [and other cities] across the country. The headhunter said to me, “I have one word for you.” “What’s that?” “Chicago.” I said, “No way that’s going happen.” I got a call from Rahm’s transition team. When he interviewed me, I told him,  “I don’t care who you hire for this job, but you are going to do great things for the kids of Chicago. I’m going to be watching what you do because I’m going to enjoy every step of your reform work.” He just laughed. [When he called me at home] we had a long conversation, and he told me how critical this is for him. He said, “Are you feeling the Jewish guilt?” I said, “I’m feeling the Catholic guilt and the Jewish guilt.” I said, “Rahm, what you’re looking to do is god’s work. You have so many young people without a voice, and there’s critical need for reform—so many people not vested in the success of these kids whatsoever. He said, “I’m offering you a job.” I said, “Really?” My wife is listening at the door, and when I hung up she said, “What happened?” “I think we’re going to Chicago.” “Oh, my god,” she said. “What happened to New Jersey?” I said,  “I’ve got to call [Newark Mayor] Cory Booker.” [Brizard had been considering going to head the public schools there.]

CF: Did you struggle with the decision to leave Rochester for Chicago? You burned some bridges there; some people in Rochester felt you broke a commitment.
J-CB:
Choosing between staying in Rochester, going to Chicago, going to New Jersey—it really was a no brainer. We loved New York and living in a big city, and we had to get used to the smallness of Rochester. People asked me what was it like to go from New York City to Rochester. Everyone knew each other in Rochester, zero degrees of separation. I wasn’t used to that. Coming to Chicago, it felt very much like being in New York, a large metropolitan area. Not a hard decision.

CF: So how long do you think you’ll stay in Chicago, and what’s next for you?
J-CB:
I said to my wife, “This is it. I’m not doing another superintendency. This is it for me, however long this lasts.” One of problem in America is revolving superintendencies; the average tenure is 18 months. I intend to be here as long as they let me stay. I’m anticipating at least four years. If Rahm runs for reelection, I’m happy to stay another four years. I want to stay in education, could be higher ed, teaching principals, working for a foundation, even working with my wife [who has been involved with charter schools]. I’d be happy to work with her building a set of schools in the city somewhere.

CF: You don’t have a PhD?
J-CB:
So I have that degree in chemistry from Queen’s College. I wasn’t certified to be a teacher in New York. I had a temporary per diem license, [to be a] permanent sub. To get certification in New York state you must have a master’s degree, so I was taking courses at Queen’s College. I told a [professor of mine],  “I don’t want to be a teacher.”  He said, “Just do it, use it as a fallback.” I never had any interest in becoming teacher. I wanted a PhD in chemistry, to become a college professor or do research. Eventually I began to lean toward teaching, getting a degree in science education. So I applied to Columbia, saw the tuition and couldn’t afford it. My assistant principal at the time said, “Why don’t you become a school administrator? You’ll make more money and might be able to afford to go to Columbia graduate school.” So I went back to Queens initially and I stayed and got a master’s in science education at Queens. ….Then I was trying to get to Columbia to get the PhD or EDD in science education. [Eventually, Brizard tells me, so he could make more money and pay for graduate school, he went to school to get certified to be a school administrator  and was offered a job as an assistant principal.]

CF: When you’re done being a superintendent will you go back at get that elusive degree?
J-CB:
My wife said it doesn’t mean a lot. My mom would disagree. She died about six years ago. [His father died a year and a half ago.] Unless you have a “Dr.” in front of your name your parents never think you’re good enough. Much to my mother’s chagrin I never did it, although I thought about it. I put the application together every once in a while, but never had the time to actually finish it. It is a sore spot for me. My wife used to respond, “I’ll give you mine if you want.” I guess it’s something I’ll do sooner or later.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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