CHICAGO — When teachers on strike took to the Chicago streets for nine days this month, news cameras followed the union president, the head of the school board and the mayor. The Chicago Teachers Union and city representatives would meet for hours, negotiating technical contract details. A throng of reporters was always waiting outside for the latest update.
But the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Jean-Claude Brizard, was nearly invisible.
As the strike began, Brizard had just come off a shaky performance review that so reverberated around Chicago that Mayor Rahm Emanuel had felt compelled to publicly voice confidence in his first schools chief. Aside from a brief appearance at Emanuel’s press conference the night the strike news broke, Brizard has defined low-profile over the last two weeks.
So what was Brizard up to?
“I got in a car and drove from school to school,” he told The Huffington Post in his first lengthy interview since the strike ended on Sept. 18. From the beginning of the strike, Brizard said he engaged with teachers on the picket lines from 6 a.m. until lunch. “Things were raw,” he said. He specifically sought places where reporters would be scarce.
On Sept. 10, the first day of the strike, at the first school where he stopped, Brizard recalled, “They told me, ‘Try and fix this quickly,’” and they said, “We just want to go back to our schools.”
Next, Brizard visited Disney Magnet School. “I was surrounded by teachers,” he said. He remembers they were shouting, “Brizard, Emanuel, give us our money back.” Brizard said, “And I thought really, what money did I take from you?” (They were likely referring to the contractual 4 percent raise Emanuel denied the teachers last year.) Then, the school’s union leader came out and “we talked for really good minutes” as the others listened.
“I spent a week doing that,” said the schools chief.
For the most part, Brizard said, teachers were happy to have his ear — until he reached a school on Chicago’s South Side where he said he was told to “go effing back to New York.” So he said thank you, waved and drove away, he recalled.
“My goal was to try and build community so when this was over, it wouldn’t be horrible,” he said.
At lunch time, Brizard would go back to the school district’s central office to monitor how Chicago’s strike contingency plan was serving students. Sometimes, when the union’s rallies filled the surrounding streets, he couldn’t get into the building. When he did, he would stand in an area with wall-to-wall windows, listening to what Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten told the throngs of teachers outside. But he made sure to stand where he was invisible to the crowds. “As much as I engage teachers on the picket line, I was not going to engage 4-5,000 teachers on the street,” he said.
His absence from the public stage during the strike stoked a rumor that he had resigned. A union member said as much at a rally, and it lit up Twitter, forcing Brizard to respond with a Mark Twain-esque email to school staff that declared, “The reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
“I don’t expect to be fired, but if the mayor decides I’m not the right person for him, that’s OK,” Brizard said.
According to Brizard, he communicates regularly with Emanuel, although he has not observed the mayor’s notorious use of colorful language. “I have not experienced that side,” said Brizard. “What I experience from him is someone who … listens,” he added. “I have to be honest about that. This is where people may or may not agree. I find that if I push certain ideas, he listens.”
“I’ve never been a yes person in my life and will not be,” Brizard said. “Whenever I push back, I’ve gotten to know him in the sense that, if you push with data, … he listens.” As an example, Brizard said that Emanuel wanted to dramatically increase the number of selective magnet schools, but when Brizard showed him the effects that move would have on other schools, Emanuel changed his mind.
Before he arrived in Chicago in 2011, Brizard, who was born in Haiti, led Rochester’s schools in upstate New York, a messy situation that included fights with the school board and the teachers union.
“I don’t understand why that’s allowed anywhere in the country,” he said, referring to the union’s right to strike. “Everyone should have a right to bargain, and I strongly believe in that,” he added, but he suggested the issues in Chicago could have been resolved without a strike. (In a panel at NBC’s Education Nation conference on Monday, Weingarten said the Chicago Teachers Union wanted a no-strike solution, too. “We asked for the same thing,” she said.)
Though Brizard said the reason why the teachers felt a strike was necessary remains unclear to him, he conceded that “there were some mistakes made” in his administration’s early days. One of those mistakes, he said, may have been to oversell charter schools as a solution to systemic stagnation. “What you hear is the rhetoric and pushback to ‘this is the answer,’” he said. “At the same time, what’s been missing is that there’s not been a robust conversation about neighborhood schools.”
He said he also could have been more vocal about the “effort to shut down lousy charter schools.”
Another mistake, Brizard noted, was that “we didn’t understand the relationship that existed” between the teachers and the administration. The distrust among teachers, he said, goes back several school chiefs.
“Teachers in some ways feel marginalized by the system,” Brizard said. “They hadn’t been nurtured, they felt. There’s not been an education conversation, a pedagogical system.”