New York School Chief Weathers Storms

An advocate of innovation, ethics, and multiculturalism in schools, Joseph Fernandez hasn't flinched from controversy over social issues

IN person, Joseph Fernandez is more down-to-earth than he comes off in his autobiography, "Tales Out of School." (See review, below.)

The rebellious determination that led this high school dropout eventually to earn a PhD remains intact. There's still the overriding confidence that has allowed him to move from teaching math in the trenches to administering the largest school district in the United States. He remains the consummate education politician.

But face-to-face, there's no missing the fact that Mr. Fernandez's heart beats for the kids.

"We are now dealing with the last window of opportunity in terms of turning the city schools around," Fernandez says of his "crusade to rescue American education."

As the chancellor of the New York City public schools, Fernandez oversees the education of close to 1 million of the most diverse students in the United States.

The system includes five boroughs, 32 community districts, more than 1,000 schools, and 125,000 employees.

Before going to New York in 1990, Fernandez was superintendent of schools in Dade County, Fla., the nation's fourth-largest school district.

Fernandez is a veteran soldier in the school-reform battle. He has spent much of his time in New York debating social issues: a high school condom-availability program, AIDS education, and a multicultural curriculum.

"Anybody who thinks that a big-city superintendent is just there to deal with educational issues doesn't know what happens in large urban school districts," he says. "You have to be savvy in terms of how you get consensus to get something done."

Although he has met with widespread opposition to some of his ideas, Fernandez continues to champion teaching tolerance in the classroom.

"Most people would prefer that superintendents just concentrate on the three R's," he says. "We have a fourth * out there that you have to deal with now, which is respect."

It would have been easier just to focus on educational issues, he acknowledges: "Could I have stuck my head in the sand and not dealt with these issues? Sure. Would my life have been easier? Sure. Could I have lived with myself? No."

Fernandez is the first to acknowledge that addressing social issues in schools can become a "holy war" in some instances. He's currently locked in combat with a school district in Queens (one of New York City's five boroughs) over two pages in the "Children of the Rainbow" curriculum.

Some parents and teachers are outraged about the references to gay families in the multicultural curriculum.

Just last week Fernandez backed off a notch and recommended some revisions in the controversial section of this curriculum.

Yet he's adamant about the importance of teaching tolerance and attacking social problems in the schools. "I'm convinced that we're on the side of the angels with these things," he says.

Fernandez is never one to shy away from controversy. He's shaken out corruption from the dusty corners of New York's vast education system and spoken out about funding inequities.

"I have fired a lot of people, and I have superseded a lot of boards where there has been corruption," he says. "I've been taken to court. Lawyers have got to line up to sue me. And they are."

Fernandez can talk on and on about the programs he has initiated in both New York and Miami. He pioneered the concept of site-based management, which allows parents, teachers, and administrators to share school decisions. He has pushed for "satellite schools" located at workplaces and college campuses through- out the city.

This is a man of ideas, but he acknowledges that not all of his plans take off.

"When I was superintendent in Dade County, I had this bright idea that everybody in the central office was going to have to go back and teach four days during the year," he says. "I made it a mandate, including the superintendent.... I had to drop it after a year because the teachers all said they had to go in and do damage control after we left. We'd all been out of the classroom too long."

In New York, even some of Fernandez's more successful ideas have taken longer to implement. And like many urban superintendents, Fernandez has run into trouble with the school board that serves as his boss. Just months after his arrival on the job, five of the seven board members who hired him had been replaced.

In his typically frank fashion, Fernandez says he probably wouldn't have come to New York at all if he had known that the board would change so dramatically.

"One of the key things that people have to understand is that unless the CEO's agenda is the same as the board's agenda then you're going to have some friction. Our agendas are not totally in sync."

Whether or not he'll stay in the job when his contract comes up for renewal this June is an open question. "I haven't made up my mind," he says.

In spite of all this political turmoil, Fernandez says it's the things that go on in the schools that trouble him the most. "The hardest thing to deal with is the violence," he says. "I'm not trained to counsel mourning parents and students."

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