Every Child is a Work of Art: Let's Help Washington Students Create Their Inner Masterpiece

Jean-Claude Brizard

May 4th, 2018

Throughout my life as an educator and advocate for children, I’ve lived by one simple principle—every child is a work of art: create a masterpiece.

With the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I hope to bring this spirit of creativity to help every student succeed. Education is one of the best ways to encourage children to thrive and learn the skills to create their own masterpiece, reaching their full potential in whatever they choose to pursue.

Education certainly shaped my own story. As a child of Haitian immigrants, I saw firsthand my parents’ struggle, escaping the brutal dictatorship of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1970 and fighting to gain residency in the United States, where they were undocumented for several years. My siblings and I spent six years living with family in Haiti before we were reunited with our parents in the United States, but the images of struggling families in my native country never escaped me.

In Haiti, my mom was a secondary school teacher and my dad was the principal of an elementary school. For as long as I can remember, my parents valued education and instilled a strong work ethic in myself and my siblings. Although their credentials did not carry over into the United States, our home was steeped in the values they embodied as educators. They understood that learning happened every day, all day, and they always played the long game—focusing on our future well beyond P-16. I bring the same beliefs and understanding to my children and my work.

My career, my whole life, is connected to education—and while each job is a unique challenge, every opportunity is rewarding. My first teaching job was as a science instructor for teenage inmates at Rikers Island Prison in New York. My experiences as a teacher, assistant principal, and then principal of a high school in Brooklyn, NY, have kept me grounded throughout my career.

My belief in the talents of each student followed me to Rochester, NY and then to the Midwest, where Chicago students showed me their grit, resilience, and talent. As CEO of Chicago Public Schools, I introduced a comprehensive change agenda across the school system, including a new framework for teaching, helping educators connect with students and teach them skills to leverage their potential. I’m proud to have helped Chicago schools deliver record increases in student achievement, graduation rates, and in college readiness benchmarks. Chicago now has some of the more significant jumps in student achievement in the country.

My experiences at all levels of education and the students, teachers, principals, operations staff, and superintendents who influenced me in New York and Chicago continue to inform my work in Washington State. As we shift our focus to elementary schools in South Seattle and South King County, we’re listening to partners and community members to understand the cultural context of each school as well as the hopes and needs of the people in it.

One of the biggest reasons I said “yes” to this job at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the team’s passion and commitment to equity—supporting all Washington State students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, income, or gender. I’ve seen firsthand how poverty and unequal opportunities can impede education. I’ve also seen how educators and communities, working together, can close the achievement gap—making sure students are better equipped to learn and grow—so they can visualize their own masterpiece.

As the sum of my parents’ and my own lived experiences, I see the world through a social justice lens, and stay centered on our purpose and why we do this work—it’s what drives me to help more children discover and create their own masterpiece.

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