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Schools CEO job bigger than 1 person

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Anybody remember Argie Johnson? Me neither.

Ted Kimbrough? That name rings a bell.

Ruth Love? Now I remember.

They were three of the last outsiders brought in to work their miracles as Chicago schools superintendent in the years before Mayor Daley took responsibility for the public school system in 1995.

Johnson came from the New York schools, Kimbrough from Compton, Calif., and Love from Oakland. Each arrived with a better reputation than they had when they left.

Once Daley took over, the city groomed its own school miracle workers, though not from within the Chicago Public School ranks. First Paul Vallas and then Arne Duncan put Chicago in the unusual position of actually exporting school reformers, if not necessarily school reform, a judgment I leave to others.

Vallas made such a great reputation for himself that he was able to parlay it into jobs in Philadelphia and then New Orleans, while Duncan went all the way to the White House as Barack Obama’s education secretary.

Still, after all those miracle workers, Chicago schools remain such a huge problem that Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel is making them his top priority and first order of business, as well he must.

I mention the history not for the purpose of knocking any of these past school chiefs, only as a measure of the impossible enormity of the task entrusted Monday by Emanuel to Jean-Claude Brizard, of late the school superintendent in Rochester, N.Y.

School chiefs come and go. The difficulty of educating our children remains. The problems are bigger than a schools CEO can solve, bigger than a mayor can solve. They start in the home, where they have been interwoven with the tattered fabric of our society.

But we have to start somewhere, and Emanuel and Brizard have raised their hand. They will need lots of support, starting now.

Brizard, whom Emanuel referred to by his initials “J.C.,” came up through the New York school system, but left there to find a top job. He’s been in Rochester only since 2008, just long enough to make a reputation for himself in education circles as someone willing to go toe-to-toe with the teachers union and others, which made him something of a political lightning rod in that city’s just-concluded mayoral campaign.

Brizard spoke only briefly Monday, reading from a text, and answered no questions, leaving that task to Emanuel.

“We must put students first,” the Haitian native emphasized in a lilting Caribbean accent that already sets him apart from his predecessors.

I’m no education expert, but I gather that “putting students first” is code for telling teachers to get on board with the changes that are coming. It gets confusing because teachers usually say they are the ones putting students first.

By way of explanation for shielding Brizard from questions about his contract status in Rochester, Emanuel said he was trying to “respect the process,” which requires the involvement of the Board of Education.

But Emanuel left no doubt that will be a formality by announcing he is making a clean sweep of Daley’s Board of Education members and replacing them with seven selections of his own, an impressive group led by former Board of Trade CEO David Vitale as board president.

While staking his own political reputation on Brizard’s ability to fix the schools, just in case Emanuel installed an entire team of administrators around Brizard to help carry the ball — and presumably keep an eye on things for the mayor’s office. Emanuel allowed that Brizard was allowed a hand in some of these picks, but it wasn’t clear how much of the new school CEO’s team is actually his.

With all these moves, Emanuel signaled as much as possible a break from Daley-era school reform, although he cited Duncan as one of those with whom he consulted during his decision making.

As he continues to shape his administration in the coming weeks, we can expect to see more signs of the mayor-elect drawing differences between himself and Daley, though respectfully.

Emanuel also let it be known Monday he is taking a strong role in shaping education reform legislation that cleared the Illinois Senate last week. The package would allow the Board of Education to impose a longer school day and year, reduce the importance of seniority in teacher layoffs and make it more difficult for Chicago teachers to strike.

By the time Brizard finishes putting all that into action, we probably won’t forget his name quite as quickly as some of the others.

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