The first 13 months on the job for Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard has been both tumultuous and rewarding as he attempts to change the direction of an oft-challenging and complicated education system faced with massive budget problems, achievement shortfalls and labor disputes.
Brizard, with the support of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has instituted new polices such as lengthening the school day and year, closing and consolidating under performing schools as well as implementing strategies to set standards for achievement among students through curriculum adjustments.
“This is just the beginning of the work for us,” Brizard told the Defender. “What we want to make clear to people is that the reforms of the past were not all that bad. They just were not always done in a comprehensive fashion.”
This past school year, 52 neighborhood and charter schools provided more than 22,000 students an additional 90 minutes of instruction each day, which will expand the upcoming school year from 5.45 hours to seven hours in elementary schools and 7.5 hour days in high schools.
“CPS and CTU have reached an interim, binding agreement that our students will have a full school day on day one this year. That’s what our schools planned for, that’s what we promised, and that is what we have in this agreement,” Becky Carroll, CPS’ Chief Communications Officer, said in a statement Tuesday hours after Brizard met with the Defender.
CPS is also adding 10 extra days, and more five-day weeks for Track R (regular) and Track E (early) schools in addition to aiding elementary and high school teachers in receiving 75 minutes of professional development each week.
In an effort to further develop neighborhood schools and make them attractive options for families, CPS is authorizing new STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) schools, expanding the International Baccalaureate Diploma program and approving 12 new charter school campuses for more than 9,200 students in so-called high-need communities.
Also on the front burner is the CPS adopting a holistic approach to creating a safe learning environment for students across the district to address behavioral issues to improve achievement.
“Building environments where students feel safe and secure is a critical tool in boosting their academic achievement,” the schools’ chief said. “The collaborative work being done will allow us to tackle safety issues from all ends, and ultimately create a safer schools.”
Brizard is hoping these sweeping initiatives will be on par with the progress experienced with the aggressive back to school campaign that saw record numbers in attendance on the first day of school a year ago.
“It is still about the principals and teachers and curriculum — whatever you want to call it,” he said. “All of it comes to building a foundation to build a better school system. This is just the beginning of the work for us.”
However, there is still much work to be done as CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union have been entrenched in a months long contract battle that could lead to work stoppage if the two sides fail to hash out an agreement in the coming weeks.
“We’ve made really good progress toward a contract. We are not there yet,” Brizard said. “I think CTU is coming to the realization that any substantial raise will result in mass layoffs.”
In nearly 10 months of negotiations, neither side has moved very much from their positions with CPS offering an eight percent raise over two years, while the teachers’ union is now steadfast on a 25 percent hike in pay along with benefits security and protection of the rights of tenured teachers who are laid off.
But due to budgets shortfall that nears $700 million, Brizard said it will take some compromising to get a deal done.
“We want the teachers to get paid,” he said. “I want my principals to get paid. I want everyone to get paid. I don’t have the power to raise revenue. I can’t give 19 percent for year one. We don’t have the money.”
Teachers are restricted from striking after Aug. 18.
“Everyone asks me how much you can afford? I said nothing,” Brizard said, adding, “I don’t even have one percent.”