Next Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has done it all, from teacher to superintendent
By ROSALIND ROSSI AND LAUREN FITZPATRICK Staff Reporters October 11, 2012 9:08PM
Chief Education Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett at the School Board meeting at 125 S. Clark. Wednesday, July 25, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times
Updated: November 13, 2012 6:35AM
When Barbara Byrd-Bennett joined long-stalled Chicago teacher contract talks on the Board of Education side of the table, she brought with her an automatic “gravitas,’’ negotiators from both sides of the table agree.
Only some four months into her role as Chicago’s “interim” chief education officer, Byrd-Bennett was tapped to sit at the table while Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard remained in his office, receiving only secondhand reports about events that topped the news night after night.
Now, Byrd-Bennett will be moving into Brizard’s office.
New York native Byrd-Bennett — who has worn just about every education hat, from teacher to principal and from CEO to coach of superintendents — will jump up a peg and replace Brizard as Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Public Schools, multiple sources have told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Her appointment by Mayor Rahm Emanuel will make her the fourth Chicago Schools CEO in less than two years — and the first female appointed to the post since lawmakers gave Chicago’s mayor control over the city’s public schools and its leaders in 1995.
Bennett, 62, takes over the top schools spot just as the system prepares plans to downsize its buildings and shutter half-empty schools — a recipe for controversy and contention. By year’s end, she will be staring down the barrel of an estimated $1 billion deficit and a ballooning pension tab.
However, Byrd-Bennett is no stranger to a challenge. She was tapped to reform two of the country’s lowest-scoring districts — in Cleveland and Detroit — and was responsible for overseeing the worst-performing schools in New York City as head of that system’s Chancellor’s District.
Her work as the CEO of Cleveland public schools from 1998 to 2006 earned her a 2001 award from the Council for Great City Schools.
She was honored for “salvaging a dysfunctional and somewhat corrupt school district” that was just coming out of state receivership, said one executive of the Council for Great City Schools.
Byrd-Bennett also served as “chief academic and accountability auditor’’ for the Detroit public schools from 2009 to 2011. She was recruited for that job through the Broad Foundation, an increasingly powerful force in education leadership circles. She had served as a Broad executive coach to superintendents.
Also, she’s served as an adviser to K12, Inc., that Virginia-based for-profit company that serves up virtual and cyber schools. And she’s been on the board of Common Core. UNO Charter Schools chief Juan Rangel’s on that, too.
Byrd-Bennett grew up in a black working-class family in New York, the daughter of a postal worker who rose to union leadership and a mother who worked in retail. She began her career in New York City, where she was both an elementary and high school teacher, as well as a principal and a curriculum director.
Last year, Byrd-Bennett was selected by The Chicago Public Education Fund to oversee the training of middle-level Chicago Public School managers, called network chiefs. School Board member and businesswoman Penny Pritzker is the former chairman of the board of the Fund that picked Byrd-Bennett for that job.
Following that executive trainer position, Byrd-Bennett was named to fill in as an interim education adviser when Noemi Donoso abruptly resigned as CPS chief education officer in late April. At the time, CPS officials weren’t sure if Byrd-Bennett wanted to put her hat in the ring for the permanent job of Chicago’s chief education officer.
However, Byrd-Bennett served a critical role when teacher contract talks that started last November dragged into this summer.
She finally joined negotiations around August — before a 10-day strike hit — and was “very important to this process,’’ one Chicago Public School negotiator said. Her strengths could be readily reported to the mayor via Beth Swanson, who also sat at the table as Emanuel’s deputy mayor for education.
Byrd-Bennett took the lead for CPS on education issues, including the contentious topic of a new teacher evaluation system.
“She’s a person of great gravitas,” the fellow negotiator said.
Even one Chicago Teachers’ Union negotiator had to agree Byrd-Bennett was impressive during contract talks. “She’s no fool,’’ said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey back in October. “She knows education.’’