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Brizard won praise from N.Y. colleagues, catcalls from unions

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Born in Haiti and raised in poverty in a New York housing project by his immigrant parents — both teachers — Jean-Claude Brizard had to fight his way to the top.

For a man supporters describe as as a charismatic charmer with a winning smile, the 6 foot 5 educator known to pals as “J.C.” has collected his fair share of anecdotes to illustrate his steelier side.

When, in his early days as a teacher of teen inmates at Riker’s Island jail, his students picked up chairs and came at him, Brizard won their respect by picking up a chair himself and telling them he wasn’t afraid to go down with them.

And when — during his period as an administrator in charge of more than 100 New York schools — he entered a high school basement unannounced and found 100 unsupervised students smoking marijuana and kissing, he angrily confronted the principal in her office.

“When I walk in, she’s sitting there with her peaceful little waterfall and classical music and the whole school was in chaos,” Brizard told a reporter last year.

“It took me years, but I got her fired.”

Brizard may not have been as outspoken on Monday, when Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel refused to let him answer questions from the media, but his rough edge and knack for confrontation upset many over the last three years, when he ran the school system in Rochester, N.Y.

The teacher’s union there overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence in his leadership in February, criticizing him for failing to consult with teachers about reform plans. The union had battled with Brizard over his plans to bring in merit pay, fire ineffective teachers, close under performing schools and set up charter schools.

Rochester Teacher’s Association President Adam Urbanski said at the time that the no confidence vote showed “you cannot be a leader if you do not have followers.”

But Philadelphia School District Supt. Arlene Ackerman, who has acted a mentor to Brizard for years, said such criticism “is part of the superintendent’s job — if everybody’s happy you’re not doing your job.” Brizard is “unflappable” in a crisis, she added.

Rochester Institute of Technology president Bill Destler praised Brizard for his “courageous” efforts to take on the union, saying “he made it clear it was never about him, it was about the students.” He added that Rochester’s loss was Chicago’s gain, though he acknowledged that the polarized atmosphere in Rochester had made it increasingly hard for Brizard to work there in recent months.

Speaking last year Brizard himself said the shake up in upstate New York — which Emanuel hopes he can now repeat in Chicago — was needed because “What existed here for a long time was this culture where everyone was collaborating, but nothing was getting done. Everyone was singing Kumbaya and everybody’s friends, but nothing moves.”

Contributing: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

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