CHICAGO — Mayor Rahm Emanuel named Barbara Byrd-Bennett head of the Chicago Public Schools Friday morning, stating she is the right person to "take us to the next level" in education.
"Barbara is a proven leader and educator with the breadth and depth of experience that make her uniquely qualified to serve Chicago's students and lead Chicago's schools," Emanuel said, "and I am incredibly proud to welcome her into this position."
Byrd-Bennett has more than 30 years of experience as a teacher, principal and school administrator in New York City, Cleveland and Detroit.
"First and foremost, I am a teacher at heart and my focus is providing the tools teachers and students need to boost student achievement and help them succeed," Byrd-Bennett said. "Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important than our children and their academic growth."
She replaces CPS Chief Executive Officer Jean-Claude Brizard, out after 17 months in the position. Brizard's leadership was questioned during the recent teacher strike, and Byrd-Bennett was credited with helping negotiate the settlement as the school system's chief education officer.
Emanuel and David Vitale, president of the Chicago Board of Education, took pains to praise Brizard. Emanuel credited him with implementing or strengthening three keys to reform: a full school day and year, principal accountability and parental choice.
Yet both also lauded Brizard for recognizing what Manuel said was "a time for new leadership," as Brizard became too associated with those sometimes contentious reforms.
Emanuel said Brizard told him, "I'm distracting from the mission, and the mission is bigger than me."
"You have a lot to be proud of," Emanuel responded, "and you should hold your head high."
"He was totally professional about it," Vitale said. "He ultimately concluded it wasn't going to work."
Brizard received a severance package including a year's salary, $250,000. Both Emanuel and Vitale said he recommended Byrd-Bennett to replace him. She was promoted from chief education officer, where she oversaw development of curriculum and instructional policy, but it was in contract talks with the Chicago Teachers Union that she established herself in Chicago as someone able to negotiate difficult terrain with various elements of the school system.
Emanuel stressed Byrd-Bennett's strengths as a communicator who — as a teacher, a principal, an administrator and as a parent and grandparent herself — has guided schools to improvement in demanding inner-city areas. "Barbara has all the experience and all the background, both personally as well as professionally, to take us to the next level," he said. "She has been part of ushering in the kind of changes we like to see."
He made special mention of the way she extended hours to a full school day in Cleveland, where she was the first CEO appointed to the job when the school system was placed under mayoral control. "She brought reform to a deeply troubled and debt-ridden school district," he added.
Byrd-Bennett cited her strength at managing "coalitions," from the classroom to the community and citywide level, but with an overarching commitment to students. "My focus will be on children," she said, "every single day, nothing more."
Her flair for diplomacy was immediately tested with a question about possible school closings. CTU officials have said more than 100 schools could be shuttered as CPS deals with budget problems. "Everything must be on the table," Byrd-Bennett allowed, adding, "It's also about community trust and respect.
"There is no plan, there is no number," she insisted, "but everything is being considered."
Byrd-Bennett pledged to end the revolving door of CPS school chiefs — four CEOs in two years — saying, "I'm here for the long haul."
"Stability is not a virtue if if you're stagnating in educational excellence," Emanuel said. "As Barbara works to present every child in every community in Chicago with a world-class education, her success will be our children's success and Chicago's success."
"We cannot and we will not fail our children," Byrd-Bennett added.
Emanuel made the announcement in a news conference at South Loop Elementary School, 1212 S. Plymouth Court. The board of education should confirm her appointment Oct. 24.