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Cortines Vows To Refocus on Teaching, Learning

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New York City's new schools chancellor, Ramon C. Cortines, said in a recent interview that he intends to refocus the massive school system's attention on "improving teaching and learning,'' but that he rejects pushing a specific blueprint for how that should be done.

"One of the major problems in reform across America is everybody comes in and does it to somebody,'' Mr. Cortines said. "I'm here to see that I provide the opportunity for administrators and for teachers and for parents and for this community to reform this school system.''

"If we're ever going to institutionalize reform,'' he continued, "we need to be watching and listening and assisting and supporting the people who are engaged in it every day.''
"How many chancellors has this system had in the last few years?'' he asked. "They come and go, but teachers, administrators, parents, and the community are left here. So what is it that they want from the school system, and how can one person, a chancellor, influence that?''

'A Breath of Fresh Air'

Since assuming his post in mid-September, the chancellor said, he has visited 40 schools and held 10 community meetings, with another 30 planned. At these meetings, he talks about setting academic standards, creating a level playing field for students, making schools safe and secure, and decentralizing resources.

"I am convinced that New York is not that large,'' Mr. Cortines said. "We have allowed the numbers of schools and students to be used as a strawman for why we can't do something, rather than to ask why not.''

Mr. Cortines's emphasis on listening to the people in the school system contrasts with the style of his predecessor, Joseph A. Fernandez, who moved rapidly to institute school-based-management reforms he had brought with him from Miami. And Mr. Fernandez struck a combative tone, working to abolish principals' building tenure and the city's board of examiners.

Lester Golden, the director of high schools for the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, said principals regard Mr. Cortines as "a breath of fresh air.''

"They appreciate the fact that it's been a long time--actually three years--since the chancellor asked for input,'' Mr. Golden said. "They appreciate the fact that he is visiting the schools, that he is looking at what exists, and that he intends to build on the positive things that are going on.''

The new chancellor's emphasis on instruction "has been well received in New York,'' said Ann Marcus, the dean of the school of education at New York University.

"People are worn out from a preoccupation with governance and management and social issues,'' she said, adding that such topics have overshadowed much of the progress that schools have made.

While Mr. Cortines says he wants to spend less time on the divisive social issues that contributed to Mr. Fernandez's ouster, he has been outspoken about the need for instituting a strong multicultural emphasis, developing an anti-bias curriculum, and respecting different points of view.

The chancellor has asked that the controversial "Children of the Rainbow'' resource guide be revised to include a "positive slant on multicultural education,'' said Leslie Agard-Jones, the director of the office of multicultural education.

The guide, which at one time included information on how teachers could explain homosexual lifestyles to young children, prompted an outcry that contributed to Mr. Fernandez's ouster.

'Consensus Building'

Mr. Agard-Jones said his office also has been asked to develop an anti-discrimination policy that may include a resource guide.

"There has got to be a process of consensus building, a way in which we develop tolerance and respect for different points of view,'' Mr. Cortines explained. "The school system should not be used to jam down people's throats political or social agendas.''

The chancellor said he was "taken aback'' at how "behind'' the New York City schools were in terms of multicultural education, which he defined as discussions of culture, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and politics.

"Is what I'm talking about what happens in the bedroom, whether homosexual or heterosexual? The answer is no,'' he said. "It's a recognition of the contributions of the complexity of people in this city and this nation.''

As expected, Mr. Cortines also has directed that a policy be prepared giving parents the right to exempt their children from the condom-availability program in the city high schools. The policy is expected to go before the board of education this month, said Francine Goldstein, the executive director of the division of student-support services.

Decentralization Backed

Mr. Cortines, who assumed office in the midst of an asbestos crisis that delayed the opening of schools, also has taken steps to decentralize some of the system's business functions.

He has asked the superintendents of the city's 32 community school districts to come up with two areas that they would like to decentralize by next fall. When they provide him with a plan, he said, "we will do it.''

In addition, Mr. Cortines has asked the director of purchasing to meet with the superintendents to decide what aspects of purchasing could and should be decentralized. Districts and schools also are being given greater responsibility for minor building maintenance.

In the ongoing debate over decentralization in New York, the chancellor asserted, the board of education's headquarters at 110 Livingston St. has become a "scapegoat'' for problems.

"Nobody asks the question, 'What is 110 doing that could be better done in the districts?''' he said. "I don't think it's either-or. There's a place for both. Decentralization is a very complex issue.''

Professional Development

While he does not intend to tell educators in New York what to do, Mr. Cortines said he will hold them accountable for results. When schools are failing, he said, he will support such measures as closing schools and reopening them with new programs.

The board of education voted last month to "restructure'' Andrew Jackson High School in Cambria Heights, Queens, and another failing high school is to be considered soon for the same treatment. Both actions were in the works before Mr. Cortines assumed his post.

Although New York City's schools do not share a centralized, mandated curriculum, Mr. Cortines has launched a project to develop a set of curriculum frameworks to insure greater equity in instruction. The frameworks would spell out standards for each grade, but leave it up to each district to decide how to meet them.

Many educators, Ms. Marcus said, hope that the frameworks will be "general and loose.'' Some have been confused by the chancellor's support for teaching phonics, she noted, because it is considered a "red flag'' term for educators who teach reading through a whole-language approach.

The direction in which the chancellor intends to move should become clearer in January, Ms. Marcus noted, when he is expected to make key administrative appointments.

Once the frameworks have been developed, the chancellor said he wants to make comprehensive professional development, centered around the frameworks, a top priority for the system.

"We have not invested at either the state, local, or federal government in keeping the profession at the state-of-the-art level,'' he said. "That has got to become the priority. I talk about it every day.

"All the other issues are important,'' he added, "but they have to be seen around teaching and learning and creating a contributing citizen.''

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