A New Course For Troubled N.Y.C. Schools


Even by New York standards, New York City Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew is sprinting.

He's rushing to City Hall for a meeting with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; he's on a flight to Albany to ask the legislature for more money; he's finding time to pay a surprise visit to a Brooklyn school after a little girl asks to see him; he's hosting a Town Hall meeting with 1,000 concerned parents. In his spare time, he confides to a friend, "I sleep."

Sleep is not easy to find, he concedes. "You have to do a thousand things to get something very simple done," he says.

Dr. Crew has been given this year's real mission impossible. His job, as the leader of New York City's public schools, is to revive a system sapped by budget cuts, crumbling infrastructure, corruption, and seemingly endless political infighting.

He is doing all this while overseeing a virtual United Nations.

America's largest school system serves over a million children who speak 130 different languages and 62 percent of whom live below the poverty line.

Crew was appointed in October 1995, to become the 23rd head of the city's schools and only the second black leader of a system in which 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic. A heavy-set man with close-cropped hair and a round bulldog face that telegraphs his determination, Crew is described by colleagues as a caring man with a deep love for children and teaching.

Articulate and personable, he has also proved a natural at navigating the shark-infested waters of New York politics. He was selected as chancellor after a bitter fight between New York's Board of Education and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Since then, he has brokered a truce and begun tackling the system's enormous problems.

"Chancellor Crew has come into a very difficult situation," says state Sen. Seymour Lachman, a former Board of Education president. "He is walking the high wire."

That tightrope is strung high and tight. New York's system, a decentralized collection of 32 school boards that administer the elementary and junior high schools, does not lack problems.

"The school buildings are falling apart and we don't have enough seats for students," says Board of Education president Carol A. Gresser. "With 20,000 to 23,000 new students every year for the last three years, we are bursting at the seams. And then we're dealing with budget cuts."

The Board of Education budget for the next year, which starts July 1, has been cut by almost $100 million to $7.75 billion, a reflection of cuts in state aid.

The cuts come at a time when the Board of Education is struggling to address a book shortage and produce the estimated $7 billion needed to repair New York's dilapidated schools. The effort to provide interim space for children taking classes in converted shower rooms and storage closets has backfired embarrassingly.

Local press dubbed a Board of Education program to lease school space - much of it in bleak industrial areas - at above-market rates, a "lease fleece." The Board has pledged to review the leases.

The disintegration of schools isn't just physical. Within his first month, Crew took control of 16 schools that were failing at least one of the state's minimum standards in attendance, math, or reading and were threatened with state intervention.

Add to this allegations of corruption in some school boards accused of using their hiring powers for patronage and graft. Last year, Crew suspended two Bronx school boards for alleged corruption and poor academic performance. While the suspensions were overturned by the courts, the education community was very much behind him.

"For having been here for short time, he has taken on a heavy load and clearly become very much in charge of the system," says Sandra Feldman, president of the United Federation of Teachers. "There have been setbacks, but he's very tenacious."

Crew remains optimistic. "To make a difference at the level we're talking about, you're going to see incremental changes at first," he said in a recent interview. "I think you'll really start to see a different perception of New York public schools in the next 18 months or so."

Crew got his start just outside the city, growing up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The grandchild of South Carolina sharecroppers, Crew was born into a family that valued hard work. He has described his father, an IBM security guard who raised him after his mother died, as a "driver" who pushed him to get things done.

His father sent him to a largely white high school and to Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., where he was one of five African-American students in 1968.

"Being a minority did not bother him," says Dr. Geoffrey Kapenzi, a retired sociology professor who became Crew's mentor. "He could stand his ground, express his views very convincingly, and handle whatever inconvenience was in his way."

While at Babson, a business-oriented college, Crew coached inner-city children in sports in his spare time. That led him to teaching and shapes his attitudes today. "The real unit of change," Crew says, "is what happens between a teacher and child."

Crew taught high school English between studying for a master's degree in urban education and a doctorate in educational administration at the University of Massachusetts. He moved to California to teach, winning the 1982 California Teacher of the Year award. By 1985, he was named deputy superintendent of Boston's public schools.

There he adopted his philosophy of "efficacy," the belief that the ability to acquire knowledge is not innate, but learned, and that children can perform above grade level.

Crew applied that philosophy when he became Sacramento city schools superintendent in 1989 and when he left there to head the school system in Tacoma, Wash., in 1993. By the time he came to New York, his efficacy drive had helped boost Tacoma test scores an average of 19 percent.

Louise Perez, a Sacramento city school-board member who worked with Crew for five years, says his methods were unique. "His approach was to align curriculum to match children's needs," she says. "He had an attitude that all children can achieve, and he helped teachers look at ways to strengthen their methods of reaching these children.

"His goals weren't different, but his approach, his focus on staff development was," Ms. Perez says. "That basic educational philosophy is his greatest strength."

Crew is bringing these methods to New York, where he is paid $195,000 a year, plus housing and expenses. At a recent school ceremony, Crew spoke of the need for standards, involved parents, and staff development.

"If there's any word that could describe him it would be standards," says US Secretary of Education Richard Riley. "He's trying to steer resources in New York toward reaching those standards."

Coaxing resources out of a strapped city is a challenge Crew faced in Sacramento. And while Crew cut his teeth on smaller systems - Sacramento has 50,000 students, Tacoma just 35,000 - he says only one significant difference stands out between those postings and this one.

"The politics around the simple things make this system far more complex," he says. "Here, what it takes to win the debate, what it takes to leverage the money, get the support, requires almost a full-time person. Just to work the politics."

The political structure is worthy of Machiavelli. Five of the seven members of the Board of Education are appointed by New York's five borough presidents and two by the mayor. "Each borough president has a different perception of politics than the mayor does," says Donald Singer, president of the New York State Federation of School Administrators.

Crew has already cleared his most formidable potential roadblock, Mayor Giuliani. Giuliani has made no secret of his belief that the Board of Education is an unwieldy bureaucracy that would run better under his control. But since Crew's appointment, Giuliani has toned down his rhetoric.

Crew's mentor, Dr. Kapenzi, is not surprised at Crew's ability to maneuver New York's political shoals. "He's forthright in a way that is not antagonistic," Kapenzi says. "He's also very able to accommodate differences but he's not a person you run into and say 'I don't know where he stands.' He would never have a problem with vision in his leadership."

Crew clearly sees the Board of Education as integral to New York's political system. "In order for New York to recover economically, the schools have to be part of the picture," he says. "We are clearly in the same lifeboat.

Crew is not without his critics. Teachers share little of his all-for-one, one-for-all feeling. "It takes years for whatever the Board of Ed does to filter down to us," says Katherine Schulten, an English teacher at Brooklyn's Edward R. Murrow High School. "They are always cutting our budget. They'll say, 'You should teach African-American literature,' but it'll take years for them to pony up the money and in the meantime all we have is 'The Scarlet Letter.' "

Crew has also riled principals' by proposing to eliminate tenure, but has redeemed himself with Mr. Singer, head of the principals union. "We have a good relationship with Rudy Crew," Singer says. "We had one bump when he talked about eliminating tenure, but I had a meeting with him. Hopefully that issue is behind us."

Others want more specifics on repairing the school system and his pledge to increase attendance when schools are already full. "He has brought some fresh thinking to the system," says Ms. Feldman of the teachers' union, "but he still has a lot to do in terms of fleshing that out."

Crew has already dismissed one of his greatest limitations, the relatively short job contract.

"I've got a three-year contract and I'm not thinking of cutting out of here in three years," Crew says with characteristic brio. "I want a second contract. If you're serious about doing this, it's going to take time. You're going to have to change the structure and the culture of this place - people don't trust each other and that makes people leave. And what I'm saying is, 'I'm not leaving.' They're going to have to peel me out of here."

A New Leader in the Schoolyard

Rudolph F. Crew

Appointed: October, 1995

Previous Positions: Tacoma, Wash., superintendent of schools,1993-1995; Sacramento superintendent of schools, 1989-1993; Boston, deputy superintendent, 1985-1989; various teaching positions, mostly in high school English, on the East and West coasts. Voted 1982 California Teacher of the Year.

Education: PhD, educational administration, University of Massachusetts; Master's degree, urban education, University of Massachusetts; B.A., Babson College, Wellesley, Ma.

Family: Wife, Kathy Byrne Crew; both have children from previous marriages


Salary: $195,000

Appointment: three years

1997 school budget: $7.75 billion

Number of schools: 1,069

Number of students: 1.1 million

Challenges: Poor attendance; book shortages; inadequate number of classrooms; buildings in serious disrepair; highly charged relations between the Board of Education and Mayor Rudolph Guiliani.

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