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Editorial: For students’ sake, get on the same page

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

No one in this city should be confused about where Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel wants to take the Chicago Public Schools.

It’s written in the reform-minded backgrounds of the schools team Emanuel announced Monday, led by CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, superintendent for the Rochester City School District, and Board of Education President David Vitale, former CEO of the Board of Trade, former chief administrative officer for CPS and chairman of a non-profit that trains teachers and turns around low-performing schools.

Emanuel’s team undoubtedly will push hard for a longer school day and year, for more charter schools and teacher training academies, more principal freedom in exchange for greater accountability, and to link teacher pay in part to performance and also pay top teachers more to work in the toughest schools.

It’s an agenda this newspaper supports, and we applaud Emanuel for hitting the ground running.

In one fell swoop, he appointed the top eight leaders for the school system, including the critical job of chief education officer, and replaced all seven members of the school board. Talk about stacking the odds in your favor.

For the first time in many years, the door to significant school reform is open, and Emanuel and his aggressive and experienced team are well-suited to make the most of it. The state is on the cusp of passing a reform package that will make it easier to lengthen Chicago’s inexcusably short school day, to fire incompetent teachers and to make teacher tenure harder to get.

But in the rush to seize the moment, there also are tremendous risks — of overshooting, of alienating the teachers, parents and principals needed to make these reforms last and of hurting the very kids Emanuel says he wants to help.

We’re most concerned about improving Chicago’s struggling neighborhood schools.

As CPS has opened more and more charters, magnets and selective enrollment schools over the years, a two-tiered education system has emerged where neighborhood schools are left to educate an increasingly challenging student population. The new schools team must devote as much attention — more, in fact — to improving and supporting those schools and students. Simply adding more charter schools is not the answer.

We’re hopeful Emanuel’s CEO pick, Jean-Claude Brizard, will make this a top priority. For the first time in many years, Chicago will be headed by a former teacher, principal and administrator. Brizard spent most of his career in New York City, knows urban education issues in his soul and is well-regarded by many.

But Brizard struggled in his three years in Rochester. He pushed a strong reformist agenda of merit pay, charter schools, closing schools and reducing school suspensions but walked away with few firm accomplishments, in part, it appears, because he clashed with the school board and Rochester teachers.

In an unprecedented move earlier this year, 95 percent of the teachers (84 percent of whom voted) voted no confidence in Brizard. The Rochester teachers union president tells us that Brizard shut teachers out of crucial school closing decisions and that they felt demonized by the superintendent. Brizard hasn’t offered his side of events in Rochester, and the dynamics in Chicago are quite different. But we hope he has learned useful lessons he can apply here.

Aggressive reform is what we want in Chicago. But producing results — lasting results — requires some buy-in from teachers, parents and administrators. Any other way may sound good, but will unravel just as quickly.

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