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Feeling heat as an agent of change

Rochester Business Journal
March 11, 2011

Jean-Claude Brizard wants to get parents in the city angry, but right now what he needs is comfort.
  The superintendent of the Rochester City School District can find that comfort on the wall of his office, hidden in a pocket on the underside of a quilt given to him by students at School 15. When he becomes overwhelmed with the protesters demanding his resignation or editorials calling for real leadership in the district, Brizard opens the pocket and reads the letters of encouragement written to him by the students.

  Not that such moments last long. As Brizard moves forward with a strategic plan that aims to have all students graduate ready for post-secondary education or work, one that reorganizes the district to give more autonomy to high-performing schools and tighter control over low-performing, he says, there is no time to take focus off the plan.

  The stakes are high. Two years before Brizard came to the district, it had a 37 percent graduation rate. The district has the highest rate of poverty among the state's five largest school districts, and in half of its schools, at least 90 percent of the students come from families below the poverty line.

  To be successful the plan needs the support of teachers, Brizard says, but conflict with the Rochester Teachers Association has been frequent. He also tries to get parents behind the plan, which for the predominantly poor population in the city means getting them angry at how the system has been failing their children.

  Even as Brizard focuses on the needs of a district with roughly 42,000 students and close to 6,500 employees and tries to find common ground with the union, he has taken a prominent place in the larger fight to reform the nation's schools.

National movement
  In October, the Washington Post published a manifesto penned by a small group of urban superintendents. Called "How to fix our schools," the letter spoke of the need to eliminate entrenched practices such as basing teaching retention on seniority rather than performance, replace low-performing schools and give teachers greater flexibility.

  It articulated the basic principles of an education reform movement that would put more accountability on teachers for performance, thus confronting teachers unions head-on. Its authors included national figures such as Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City schools, former District of Columbia chancellor Michelle Rhee-and Brizard.

  For Brizard, this national involvement is important because no city will get better results from public schools unless the public is behind the reform movement.

  "I think my colleagues in the reform movement are doing a good job bringing this message to the rank-and-file people we are serving, to get them to say enough is enough," Brizard says. "One strategy is getting the movie 'Waiting for "Superman"' to be shown in every city in America. If enough people see that and will get angry enough, we'll start to see real change.

  "It has to come from that anger, and a grassroots movement like the civil rights marches in the 1960s in some way has to take place. But it has to be led by the black church, from the people being disserved by the system to push back against it."

  The movement is catching on, Brizard says, but still has not reached a tipping point. It has strong buy-in from the business community and a growing number of politicians, and even some teacher groups such as Educators 4 Excellence in New York City are willing to change regulations to conform to the vision of the education reform movement.

  But support has still not reached all the right places, as Brizard found at Rochester's screening of "Waiting for 'Superman,'" a 2010 documentary about the failures of public education.

  At the screening, the moderator asked how many people had children in public schools, and most of the hands shot up, Brizard says. But when she asked how many were in city schools, only one or two hands remained up.

  "The parents and colleagues from the suburbs, they're already here," he says. "The middle class in the suburbs and city seem to get it, but if I can get the poor parents in the crescent to get angry and begin to beat up on the system, then I will have done a hell of a lot."

  Victories elsewhere could lay the groundwork for what happens in Rochester, Brizard says. In Denver, a coalition of politicians, advocates, school officials and school board members banded together to change laws regarding teacher and principal evaluations and the "last-in, first-out" policy for teacher layoffs, which favors seniority over performance.

  The same kind of changes that came more naturally in Denver are being advanced in other states through the federal government's Race to the Top funding, which gives states funding only if they have met certain requirements such as a minimum number of charter schools. And national groups such as Rhee's StudentsFirst, which raises money to counter the influence of other education interests, are helping as well.

  "There's a sort of mushrooming effort around the country to begin to push this, and it's becoming proactive," Brizard says.

Standing out
  For Brizard, there are two battles taking place in the fight to reform education-the large-scale one that involves starting a national dialogue about what urban schools need to improve and the local one taking place in nearly every big urban district.

  "Rochester is really no different than the battles going on in Milwaukee, Denver, New York City," says Brizard, a graduate of the Superintendents' Academy of the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems. "The issues and demographics facing urban education are pretty similar; it's just that some of us are a little farther ahead in the fight than others."

  But most of the other superintendents involved in the movement head some of the nation's largest districts, with Rochester midsize by comparison. This alone would make other superintendents want to keep their heads down and focus on parochial issues, Klein says, but not Brizard.

  "When I was in the game, J.C. was one of those who wasn't afraid to speak out," says Klein, who in late 2010 left his position as chancellor to become an executive vice president at News Corp. "He signed the memorandum that I put together with Michelle Rhee, and that took guts, because he's in a smaller district where people prefer to tone it down."

  Brizard remains close to this small group of progressive superintendents, calling on their help when facing the issues in Rochester. When he first came to the district in 2008, he spent considerable time with Arlene Ackerman, superintendent of Philadelphia schools, also a co-author of the Washington Post manifesto and Brizard's mentor at the Broad Foundation.

  Ackerman had a bird's-eye view of the problems facing urban districts, and she helped Brizard then delve into the politics and minutiae of Rochester to understand what was driving the bigger problems. They found mixed results in the district-elementary schools that were performing well enough but high schools producing abysmal results with headline-grabbing low graduation rates.

  Together they came up with a plan for Brizard's first year, a small window Brizard saw as a make-or-break period to get reform done.

Strategic plan
  When Brizard first became superintendent, he also sought advice from superintendents of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and Denver school districts. They told him the same thing: He would have one shot to make central office cuts, so he needed to do it right.

  It was a cut Brizard knew needed to come first, before other measures were implemented, to set the tone for how his administration operated.

  "The advice I got from all my colleagues who were doing this a long time was, 'You'll have one chance to cut the central office, so you're better off cutting it deep, because you won't be able to go back and do it again,'" Brizard says.

  In the first year of his five-year strategic plan, the 2008-09 school year, Brizard worked with managers to analyze the operations and effectiveness of the central office. The goal was to create an agile organization that quickly responds to student needs.

  This initial reorganization allowed the district to focus on the crux of the strategic plan, shifting resources away from the central office and to the schools. The plan starts with a simple objective-making sure all students graduate prepared for college or whatever the next step may be-and from there divides into five goals, including improving infrastructure and security, aligning the curriculum districtwide and using a system of data measurement to track results.

  Coming into the district, Brizard saw a problem with how principals were treated. They were put in charge of their schools and held responsible for the results, but they had little say in how their budgets were spent or which teachers came or went.

  "Think about it," Brizard says. "It's as if you own a franchise and have no control of the people or the money, but you're still responsible for the profits. That's been our system."

  Under the strategic plan, principals in high-performing schools would be given greater autonomy over budgets and operations and the central office would take stricter control over schools that struggle, ultimately closing the lowest-performing.

  This power shift also put the onus on the adults in the district to stop making excuses about problems being out of their hands and start focusing on children, Brizard says.

 "Rather than feeling sorry for ourselves, let's get aggressive," Brizard says. "In the plan we wanted to move from the defensive to the offensive. We looked at how we had a top-down system where the central office controlled everything, and we wanted to flip that and have people here (at central office) understand that we work for those people in the schools, not the other way around."

  The district has faced some accusations that instead of making difficult decisions about how to cut services to make up for drops in state funding, it is passing these on to principals. Brizard looks at it differently.

  "We say if someone has to make cuts, would you rather have us cut for you, or do you want to figure out what's best for your school and your team and make the best decision possible for you?" he says.

  In some ways the implementation has gone exceedingly well, Brizard says. Improvements to back-office operations have been recognized by the Council of Great City Schools.

  Ironically, as things become better they will likely appear worse to those who did not understand what conditions were like before the plan was implemented, Brizard says. He recalls Michael Barber, who while in charge of the education system in England said that no one complained when the system was terrible, but as it improved complaints skyrocketed.

  "It was only when it got better that people found out how bad it really had been," Brizard says. "So as we become more transparent, we are accused of not being transparent. I've done more to engage teachers than most of my predecessors, yet those who were here for those predecessors accuse us of being insolent."

  The changes have not come without angst, Brizard says. When he eliminated the practice of sending home suspended students, he was met with anger from teachers, and a plan to change food services drew protest at board meetings. But time has shown these initiatives to be fruitful, he says.

  "If you look at it today, it's run very differently than it was two years ago and the quality of meals is getting better every day," Brizard says.

Getting teachers on board
  But the hardest part of the strategic plan, Brizard says, has been implementing changes to teacher accountability.

  The plan looks beyond certifications or qualifications, seeking to recruit and retain teachers who show classroom results. School leaders conduct rigorous and timely evaluations of teachers based on data and expert observation, and they base retention and compensation on these results.

  "Once we begin to talk about accountability, we knew we were going to hit a nerve," Brizard says.

  Brizard rails against the common practice of "last in, first out," which leaves younger, untenured teachers vulnerable for layoffs. He is still stung by a personal experience in his first few days teaching. After graduating with a degree in chemistry, Brizard still lived at home with his parents in Queens as he looked for a job.

  After a fruitless search, he finally gave in to his mother's suggestion that he look for work as a teacher. He took a job teaching at a high school in Queens. He was there a short time before being bumped from the school when a teacher with more experience came in.

  "Though I was one of only five teachers in the whole borough of Queens licensed in physics, I had to go," says Brizard, still annoyed more than 20 years later. "There was a math teacher at the school who showed up every day and showed a basketball video, but he was tenured, so I was the one to leave."

  Changes for teachers have come under intense fire in the district, with the RTA pushing back and Brizard himself drawing protests and ire from teachers, culminating with a vote of no confidence in February that had 96 percent of teachers side against Brizard.

  Brizard still believes the strategic plan will catch on among teachers, but he says first it will require an end-around to deal with the RTA's resistance.

  "I'm impatient, so I would love everyone to just get it, but I'm realistic also," he says.

  He takes hope from the situation that CEO Andres Alonso faced in the Baltimore school system. There a plan to change teacher rules failed in an initial vote, but afterward Alonso sat down with national leaders and came up with a better way to get his message to rank-and-file teachers. The plan passed on the second vote.

  Brizard is convinced that the right message and the right delivery are all that is needed in Rochester.

  "The model for a teacher's union is that it's a union of professionals, and to be a professional you have to be treated as one," Brizard says. "You don't have first in, last out. That's a Teamster mentality. If you do more, you get paid more, and if you're more effective, you get paid for more."

  Dialogue with teachers will help change minds, Brizard says, but this has proved difficult. The union has nearly unlimited access to teachers, but the district has only principals to communicate with the teachers, and not all of them subscribe to the plan. Brizard has tried to meet with small teams of four to five teachers at a time but has been rebuffed by building representatives.

  "When we can get in front of those small groups and talk to them, they get it," Brizard says. "The problem is lately when we try to schedule these small meetings, the building reps or union finds ways to sabotage them. The last one, a union rep told me if we don't meet with the entire faculty no one would show up. Well, it's a lot harder to have an intimate conversation with 150 people."

Working with Urbanski
  Adam Urbanski is convinced that Brizard is delusional.

  How else could he look at the results showing 96 percent of his teachers have no confidence in him and still try to push through an unpopular plan, the RTA president asks.

  "The vote of no confidence if nothing else would have been a wakeup call to a competent manager, but he continues to believe that these teachers love him," Urbanski says. "It's almost indicative of what we're watching on the news, where these Middle Eastern leaders are in denial and say, 'The people love me.'"

  After spending three years trying to persuade the community that it is only the union heads who oppose his plan, not teachers, Brizard should take the results of the no-confidence vote as evidence otherwise, Urbanski says.

  Even before he became superintendent, Brizard knew that interaction with Urbanski would be tricky. Before the two met, Brizard reached out to people who share the same circles as the two, asking how he should engage Urbanski.

  "A lot of us saw Urbanski on the national scene, and what he created 25 years ago is groundbreaking, but what's missing is that level of rigor, and we've learned a lot about teacher evaluation in the last 25 years," Brizard says. "Our push has been taking what he created and building version 2.0."

  The message worked when he first came into the district, and the two made progress, Brizard says, but within weeks the relationship soured.

  Last fall Brizard began reaching out to the American Federation of Teachers, asking the national union to send a mediator to Rochester, but so far that has not been successful. Brizard says he is hopeful that if he and Urbanski could come to the negotiating table, they could work past differences.

  "Once we get to the table and start to get some understanding, I think we'll get there, and trust will be built over time," Brizard says. "It's something that has to be done and will be done. We don't want this plan to be done with a hammer; we want it collaboratively, in a way that supports kids and schools."

  Urbanski says the union's priorities for the district remain the same-giving students greater access to social services, making schools safer and improving teaching and learning conditions. He says Brizard has refused to address any of those issues, and he sees no hope for any improvement in the union's relationship with the administration.

  "We have a mismatch, and the sooner we acknowledge we have a mismatch, the better off the kids will be," Urbanski says. "The only choice when we have a mismatch would be for him to leave or for all the teachers to leave."

  As the public face of the administration and the effort to reform schools in Rochester, Brizard says a certain level of pushback is to be expected. Though he says he is surprised by how personal it has become, he keeps his focus on advancing the plan and continuing to seek buy-in from teachers.

  "I've always said I don't mind being the buffer, the one who takes the bullets so they can do their job and keep going," Brizard says. "We're trying hard not to be defensive, responding to the rhetoric, but go on the offensive by continuing to find ways to bring our message directly to teachers."

Business support
  Brizard may be embattled and under assault from picketing teachers, but he is not without support elsewhere.

  Much of it comes from the business community. Daniel Burns, president of M&T Bank's Rochester division, was part of a small group of local leaders who reached out to Brizard when he first became superintendent. Since then the two have become friends and worked together on initiatives involving the bank and the district, such as a literacy program.

  "I see him as someone who is extremely focused, relentless in his passion to make things better in the school district," Burns says. "He's just a sponge for knowledge and information and loves data."

  People in the business community have taken to Brizard because they can relate to his situation as he tries to create a more efficient operation and improve outcomes despite obstacles such as the financial straits of the state, Burns says.

  "I think the business community has become Jean-Claude's cheerleader," Burns says. "The business community and the general public see that he's trying to make change, to make things better, and as these challenges continue to throw themselves at him, he keeps his head high and keeps doing what's best for kids."

  The district has engaged the business community as well. It instituted the PENCIL Partnership Program, which takes local business leaders and pairs them with individual schools to evaluate problems facing the schools, improve operations and even serve as "principals for a day."

  The strategic plan is influenced heavily by the world of private business. It uses the Balanced Scorecard system to evaluate outcomes, and Brizard has sought insight from consultants in local business.

  "We are putting data and metrics behind everything we do, so if people ask how an initiative is working, you won't get this anymore: 'Uh, we're not sure,'" Brizard says. "If we focus the organization on using data to make decisions, at least you know what you're spending money on and why you're spending it."

  Klein says Brizard's approach to the district is the only way to bring change. Pumping more money into districts has not brought results, and only a total revamping to improve efficiency will do.

  "When you look at what's happening in the city of Rochester, it's breathtaking how poorly kids had been performing," Klein says. "In the last 10 to 12 years a lot of money has been put into K through 12 schools, and you can pretend you get better results, but it's the same old same old. The people want to push back because he's speaking the truth in a plain and straightforward fashion."

  Brizard says he tries to escape the heated debates as much as possible, finding solace in bicycling and flying private instrument commercial airplanes with the Rochester Air Center. He also leans on the support his wife, Brooke Stafford-Brizard, herself involved in education in the city and starting an all-girls charter school.

  Even through protests or calls for his resignation, support from people like Burns and Klein "helps me wake up in the morning," Brizard says.

  "It's easy to take the criticism personally, but knowing that support is there allows for only an hour of being wobbly in your own tears instead of all day," Brizard says. "It allows you to sit and watch speaker after speaker ask for your resignation at a board meeting and puts that into perspective."

Jean-Claude Brizard
Position: Superintendent, Rochester City School District
Age: 47
Education: B.A. in chemistry, Queens College, 1985; M.S. Ed. in science education, Queens College, 1990; M.S. Ed. in school administration and supervision, City College of New York, 1995; fellow at Broad Superintendents Academy, 2000
Family: Wife Brooke Stafford-Brizard, daughter Nyah, son Silas
Residence: Rochester
Activities: Flying with the Rochester Air Center, bicycling, travel, finding and trying new restaurants
Quote: "It's easy to take the criticism personally, but knowing that support is there allows for only an hour of being wobbly in your own tears instead of all day. It allows you to sit and watch speaker after speaker ask for your resignation at a board meeting and puts that into perspective."

3/11/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail

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