MEDIA WATCH: Tribune, as usual, using front page 'news' stories to promote its political agenda behind an Oprah-esque personal biography version of the life and career of Jean-Claude Brizard

The photograph on the front page of the home delivery edition of the Chicago Tribune on May 9, 2011, told the whole story of Rahm Emanuel's clout and the political agenda Chicago's ruling class is pushing for Chicago's public schools, but like the content of the photograph itself, most of the agenda was hidden.

Flanking Jean-Claude Brizard, the controversial and corrupt superintendent of the Rochester (New York) public schools, were the twin poles of clout that will be backing Brizard from the moment he takes office following Emanuel's inauguration on May 16, but neither of those individuals was identified. On Brizard's left was Peter Cunningham and on Brizard's right was Elizabeth ("Beth") Swanson. The two are representatives of the White House and the Plutocracy, indicating to readers the kind of corporate and government clout Brizard will have when he storms into Chicago with corporate talking points and media adulation by the time of his first Board of Education meeting on May 25.

Peter Cunningham works for the federal government nowadays, as a strategist for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Beth Swanson works for the Priztker-Truabert Family Fund, the personal charity used by billionaire Penny Pritzker and her husband, Bryan Traubert. When Brizard takes office in Chicago's public schools, the message is, he will have not only the support of the Tribune, but the combined clout of the people who run the government of the USA, on the one hand, and the people who own much of the country, on the other. The article also mentioned that Brizard got the necessary leadership training to prepare him for both the Rochester and Chicago posts courtesy of the Broad Superintendents' Academy. The Broad Academy, as Substance has already noted (see Kenneth Saltman's article ______) is the attempt by billionaire Eli Broad to circumvent traditional K-12 leadership development in schools and via the universities with a corporate entity that prepares military and corporate people (mostly retiring military officers and mid-level corporate bureaucrats with MBAs) to take over school systems.

The article can provide Chicago readers with a great deal of insight into how the Tribune, which is the voice of the attack on public education in Chicago, will spin the next year or more of the "news" that Chicago's citizens get on the bizarre story of Jean Claude Brizard (and Rahm Emanuel's attack on the public schools and unions). Take the following quote: "'It's not about reform for reform's sake, but how do we change the lives of children?' Brizard said. That has to be the reason why we do this work.'"

Left out of context, that quote and many of the others is almost bland. But given the fact that for 16 years the Tribune has been the biggest cheerleader for every twist and turn of Chicago's corporate "school reform", the quotation cries out for further questions. After all, if what Chicago has had is "reform for reform's sake," as Brizard seems to be saying, then the person who engaged in "reform for reform's sake" was Mayor Richard M. Daley. The Tribune is thus explaining how Daley's version of "school reform" — from the appointment of Paul Vallas as the city's first public schools Chief Executive Officer in July 1995 through the elimination of Terry Mazany as the fourth Chief Executive Officer this month — was a kind of failure: "reform for reform's sake."

Leaving aside the Freudian implications of Rahm Emanuel's rejection of the centerpiece of the political life's work of the man who gave Rahm his political start (and who put Arne Duncan into the President's Cabinet), the questions just grow as the Tribune's version of this latest reality is examined closely. But they aren't about to be answered by the Tribune itself. Is Rahm really saying that Daley's whole hearted version of Chicago's corporate "school reform" — from the first days of test-based "accountability" through the final destruction of community schools and the creation of dozens of charter schools under "Renaissance 2010" — was "reform for reform's sake" (as Substance and other critics have been saying for decades)?

But the format of the Tribune's hagiographic version of the "news" forges ahead without examining the rhetoric. The purpose of the article, like dozens of others the Tribune has published over the years to promote the latest "reform" leader, is mytmaking and agenda setting. Brizard is supposed to be judged on the basis of his own version of his own biography, unexamined. The rags-to-riches part, the "family that fought fascism" part, and the "stand for children" part are all supposed to blind the reader to the questions ranging from Brizard's "failure" in Rochester to questions about why 95 percent of Rochester teachers voted "no confidence" in the guy and a former administrator — an African American woman — has already won one federal discrimination case against Brizard and has a civil damages lawsuit pending in federal court.

In the addled logic of the Chicago Tribune, and the government and corporate muscle behind Brizard, Chicago is supposed to favor Brizard because he was able to discriminate against his own staff and alienate the majority of the city's teachers — all in less than three years on the job.

As usual, the fault is that Rochester, like Chicago, is a "troubled" district. Brizard was just doing it all for the children. So sayeth the Chicago Tribune, voice on school reform matters of corporate Chicago.

As more comment develops on Brizard and how the Tribune is promoting him, Substance will be updated. But for this morning, the Tribune article deserves study, so it follows here:


Jean-Claude Brizard, Chicago's new schools chief, doesn't back down from a challenge

Jean-Claude Brizard, Chicago Public Schools' fourth chief executive since 2009, sees in Chicago an opportunity to succeed where he failed in Rochester, By Joel Hood and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Tribune reporters, 6:07 p.m. CDT, May 8, 2011 (on line). Page One, Chicago edition of the Tribune May 9, 2011 (print).

Described as passionate and stubborn, charismatic and calculating, Jean-Claude Brizard is the new face of reform for Chicago's distressed public school system.

Shaped by his humble roots in Haiti and forged in battles with school boards, parents and unions over a 25-year career in New York public schools, Brizard is accustomed to taking on challenges. But Chicago presents pitfalls unlike any he faced in New York City, where over 21 years he climbed the ranks from high school physics teacher to a regional superintendent, or in Rochester, N.Y., where a turbulent 31/2-year run as schools superintendent left questions about his ability to lead.

"I've never had an easy job in my life," said Brizard, 47, whose first teaching job was as a science instructor for teenage inmates at Rikers Island Prison in New York. "Each (job) has taught me a lot about what to do next and how to do things differently."

At Chicago Public Schools, Brizard encounters perhaps his stiffest test yet: a school district sinking beneath massive debt, ineffective reform efforts, academic failures and years of upheaval in leadership. But Brizard, the district's fourth chief executive since 2009, sees an opportunity to succeed where he failed in Rochester.

"It's not about reform for reform's sake, but how do we change the lives of children?" Brizard said. "That has to be the reason why we do this work."

Brizard's philosophies on life and education were partly shaped by his boyhood in Haiti under the brutal dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Brizard said his grandfather, a classical music conductor, was imprisoned for seven years because of his political views. When the family learned Brizard's father might be next, his parents fled Haiti, leaving Brizard and two siblings behind with family.

Six years later, Brizard, then 12, and his siblings reunited with their parents, but the images of poor families in his native country, with "fathers going through garbage cans to find food for their children," was forever imprinted in his mind.

As a Haitian in working-class Brooklyn, he endured bullying and violence, once getting jumped by teenage boys in a high school bathroom. His parents emphasized education, so while French and Creole were their native languages, they insisted the children speak only English at home. Brizard excelled in school and graduated from high school at age 16.

"Our parents instilled hard work in us. Education was the key," said Brizard's brother Jeff Brisard, an assistant principal at a Brooklyn high school. The two brothers, while close, spell their family names differently. "Without education, there was nothing," Brisard said.

Those early childhood experiences helped define Brizard's sense of fairness and equality, friends said, and is a reason why so many of his reform efforts have sought to close the achievement gap between students from poor and affluent backgrounds.

"He has seen poverty at a whole different level, and I think that has given him a fresh perspective on its impact on education," said George Nicholas, pastor at the Grace United Methodist Church in Rochester. "Poverty is a factor that can impede a young person's ability to get an education, but it can't be an excuse."

Brizard's immigrant roots continue to influence his outlook.

"I tell my (students) all the time that if you can't get through the front door, try the back door. If it's locked, try the window. If it's locked, go down the chimney," he said. "By any means necessary, get inside the house. Get inside and change (the world) from within."

The son of a teacher and a principal, Brizard didn't intend to follow his parents into education. But after college and the teaching stint at Rikers, he landed a full-time job at George Westinghouse High School, a struggling vocational school in Brooklyn where dwindling enrollment and poor academics put it on the cusp of closure. He said he fell in love with the profession and, over the next eight years, moved from teacher to administrator.

As principal at Westinghouse in 1999, he helped spearhead a radical change in the school's focus, moving away from jewelry repair and carpentry to advanced computer programming and design. He built partnerships with local colleges and businesses. When parents fretted about the pace of these changes, Brizard won them over, telling them that nothing was more important than getting kids the skills they needed.

"I think once parents heard him talk about 21st century careers that businesses were looking for and heard him speak in an intelligent thoughtful way, they quickly became his allies," said Rose Albanese-De Pinto, who hired Brizard as principal at Westinghouse.

In 2003, then-New York City School Superintendent Joel Klein promoted Brizard to the district headquarters, where he eventually became a regional superintendent to oversee curriculum, planning and school closures. His decision to shutter a struggling Brooklyn high school sparked outrage among parents and politicians, but he withstood it.

"If you're going to take a tough stand on certain issues, talking about closing down schools, which he did, or talking about teachers' evaluations, you're going to rock some boats," Klein said. "(Brizard) understands that."

Brizard was accepted in 2007 into the Eli Broad Superintendents Academy, a management training program that has produced administrators at some of the country's largest urban school districts, including Los Angeles, Boston and New York. As a Broad fellow, Brizard was part of a new wave of reform-minded educators whose data-driven, business-centered approach and support of school choice and strict teacher accountability are often at odds with union leadership.

When he arrived in Rochester, a chronically under-performing district of 34,000 students, Brizard tapped into his Broad training, promising to boost graduation rates and test scores, particularly among African-American and Latino students. But almost immediately he rankled longtime district employees by demanding stricter teacher evaluations and linking their pay to student performance.

Other initiatives — such as pushing for a longer school year, reducing suspensions to keep kids in school and laying off more than 100 teachers — prompted teachers to file numerous grievances with the Rochester Teachers Association and, ultimately, led them to give him a no-confidence vote. Brizard also found himself at the center of two ongoing federal lawsuits over his handling of teacher discipline and the firing of a longtime district employee who accused him of discriminating against her because she was an older African-American woman.

Even Brizard's wife, K. Brooke Stafford-Brizard, a politically connected insider from New York state, became a source of controversy when she began working to build a charter school in Rochester.

With his support cracking, Brizard abruptly announced he was leaving Rochester for Chicago — a move friends and critics say froze many of his reform efforts. The district is $80 million in debt, about half of its schools are failing federal academic standards, and the rising graduation rate Brizard once touted as an accomplishment is only marginally higher.

"I have a real problem with people who come here to make names for themselves but not to bring reforms that have lasting impact," said Rochester school board member Cynthia Elliot. "I think many people feel betrayed."

The stakes are higher in Chicago, but already Brizard's resolve and positive attitude are winning support from education insiders. And he's planning listening tours with teachers and students in coming weeks, hoping to build connections here that he lost in Rochester.

"He is calm. He listens. His is unflappable under pressure," said Timothy Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago. "When you're going to be doing some heavy lifting … that kind of leadership is a key part of the equation."

Brizard said he never shies away from a battle, just as long as the fight makes sense.

"It's why I will stand in front of a group of people and get yelled at if we know this is ultimately good for kids," Brizard said.,


Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

5 + 4 =