Tackling a school system `in crisis'. Task for N.Y.C. school chief is to help the disadvantaged

Richard R. Green, new chancellor of the New York City public schools, will head the nation's largest school district at a time when confidence in the system is low. With more than 936,000 students, the New York City public schools are a far cry from the less than 39,000 students Dr. Green presided over in Minneapolis, where he has been superintendent of schools since 1980. A nationally recognized innovator, Green is charged with turning around a system that is seen by some as suffering from incoherent management.

Individually, New York City schools range from some of the best in the country to some of the poorest. As a whole, like most large urban school districts in the United States, they have a high dropout rate, dilapidated school buildings, and a looming teacher shortage.

``This is a school system that can properly be characterized as in crisis, and which is not working for youngsters in many areas,'' says Robin Willner, staff director of the Education Priorities Panel, a watchdog group. She calls Green's new post the most challenging job in education in the country.

Green's choice comes after a very visible, political search for a new chancellor, and an even longer debate over the effectiveness of the city's Board of Education, which runs the city's schools. The search was marked by demands from various groups that the new chancellor be black - which Green is - and that persons from inside the New York system be given priority. Green has not worked in the New York school system.

The new chancellor will face many issues, but one of the most profound, says David Jones, general director of the Community Service Society, is how to reach the child who has the toughest time and is falling behind in the system. That child is often poor, living in substandard housing, going to the worst schools, living in a community with high unemployment and high crime.

Frank Macchiarola, who was the chancellor from 1978 to 1983, agrees that the schools could be doing a better job for the poor. He says good education is going on within the New York City schools, but that there needs to be more accountability within the system.

The challenge is to create for the poor child the kind of opportunity that waves of immigrants have had in the past, he says. Today New York schools have a large number of foreign-born students, and many of their families have been in poverty for generations.

Mr. Macchiarola, who has praise for Green, warns that the city should not retreat from an agenda of reform in the city schools simply because a new chancellor has been selected.

Ms. Willner says the atmosphere for change is fairly good right now. She points to interest on the part of both Mayor Edward Koch and Governor Mario Cuomo in making education a priority.

The private sector, through efforts of groups such as the New York City Partnership, is talking about linking the quality of the work force with the quality of education today's children receive. Minorities are insisting that education and the future of children in the city is key to their agenda. And the unions, which still wield much power, are talking about a range of issues - such as school-site management - that they would not have addressed 10 years ago, she says.

Michael Timpane, president of the Teachers College of Columbia University, says the intensely public search shows how much the city yearns for a better system, and how important education is to the life of the city.

``Dr. Green can really bring the city schools into a new era of reform,'' says Dr. Timpane.

He points out three things that characterize the New York schools.

First, their size. Dr. Green will be dealing with 104,000 staff members, which is more than two times the number of both staff and students he had in Minnesota.

Second, says Timpane, there is phenomenal diversity in the city schools - and both great hope and tremendous problems.

Third, the developments of the last 15 years have left high levels of distrust and cynicism concerning New York City public schools, on the part of faculty, parents, the public, and students, says Timpane.

Willner, of the Education Priorities Panel, says the new chancellor needs to look at the instruction the schools are offering.

``Students are not acquiring basic skills, let alone the broader education,'' she says.

Green also needs to look critically at the high schools. Dropout rates are disputed, but Willner estimates that two-thirds of the students who enter high school do not graduate in four years. Not all of these drop out, but it shows that the traditional notion of high school is not working for New York students.

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