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New Chicago Schools CEO kicks off ‘listening tour’

Updated: June 2, 2011 1:07AM



New Chicago Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard kicked off a “listening tour’’ Wednesday by talking to a dozen parents about establishing systemwide “parent-teacher agreements’’ by this fall — but insisted he would not use them as a “gotcha” vehicle against parents.

“I’m not looking for a gotcha or a hammer. I don’t want to punish people,’’ said Brizard afterwards, during his first give-and-take with reporters since lame duck city School Board members approved his appointment on May 25.

“It’s about a partnership with parents to work with us.’’

While campaigning for mayor, Brizard’s boss, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, talked about “parent contracts’’ that could require Chicago Public School parents to read to their children and limit the amount of time youth watch television and play video-games.

When Emanuel’s post-election transition plan emerged, the “contract” had turned into a “parent-teacher agreement” to be signed by the beginning of the school year.

Even Wednesday, it was clear that what this new CPS parent deal will be called mattered to “listening tour’’ parents.

When Brizard brought, as a conversation starter, a 17-point “parent contract’’ used at charter schools run by the United Neighborhood Organization, one parent asked, “Couldn’t we use a friendlier term?”

The parent requirements in the UNO “contract” — ranging from sending children to school on time with the necessary supplies to attending at least one school activity a month — “make sense to me,’’ said Toylee Green-Harris, whose child attends Kenwood Academy High School.

“But,’’ Green-Harris asked, “how would CPS enforce such a thing and decide what would the consequences be?’’

Green-Harris said the deal should be more of a “partnership’’ that would hold not only parents, but teachers and principals accountable. Brizard agreed that the “paradigm shift’’ to “partnership’’ is one “we have to embrace.”

Although the ultimate goal of the parent-teacher agreement is to spur parent involvement, Brizard noted that “parent involvement’’ can take different forms.

“My parents never walked into my school,’’ said Brizard, who was born in Haiti and separated from his parents at age six, for six years, until the family was able to safely reunite in New York City. “But they were very involved in my education.’’

One parent on Wednesday’s “listening tour” suggested that parents be fined $10 or $20 if they violate the parent-teacher agreement; another said parents could be required to volunteer time at the school as a punishment.

Parents who violate UNO’s parent contract face no penalties — except that they are asked to talk to their child’s teacher, said UNO CEO Juan Rangel.

“If we have to get to the point of fining parents, we’ve got bigger problems,’’ Rangel said.

UNO’s contract is meant to “set the tone for the school year” and “provoke a conversation about the role that parents need to take to ensure the success of their children,’’ Rangel said.

Parent agreements have been around for decades in public schools that receive federal poverty dollars, but “in most places, there are no partnership police to find out if you measure up,” said Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University. Enforcement would be so time-consuming she recommended against it.

Epstein’s group, which works with 1200 schools nationwide, uses the term “pledge’’ rather than “contract” and recommends that parents, students, teachers, and principals all sign “parallel versions’’ of the same pledge so they are “all on the same page with the message that we are going to be good partners.’’

On other topics Wednesday, Brizard said:

— The system’s $720 million deficit is “huge” and in coming days he will be discussing whether CPS can afford to pay a scheduled four percent teacher raise — an annual decision usually declared by June 15. But ultimately, Brizard said, incoming school board members will decide whether to cover the raise. He will “try hard’’ to keep larger class sizes “off the table.’’

— The system’s mandatory “Breakfast in the Classroom” program has seen a “mixed” rollout. Brizard questioned the nutritional value of some breakfasts and the loss of instructional time at some schools, but also said he has seen the program work well. At Howe Elementary, Brizard said, the food seemed nutritious and students did not lose any instructional time during breakfast.

— He believes in a “lean central office’’ and is weighing whether Chicago’s 24 mid-level “area offices’’ should be shrunk to a smaller number — he mentioned the possibility of 15 or 20.

— He plans to talk to Chicago’s Schools CEO Paul Vallas in a few weeks about the CEO job and already has spoken with former CEO Ron Huberman. He will be gathering input from principals, teachers and students until the end of the school year as part of his “listening tour.’’ Those interested in arranging a small group “listening tour” meeting with Brizard can email cpsfeedback@cps.k12.il.us.



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