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Cortines Raises Graduation Requirements in N.Y.C.

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Beginning in the fall, all 9th-grade students in New York City will have to take three courses in each of academic mathematics and academic science to graduate from high school, Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines announced last week.

The ambitious requirements are believed to be the most rigorous graduation standards ever imposed by an urban school district.

The nation's largest school system will eliminate the nonacademic math and science courses that many students have taken to graduate, the chancellor said.

"The easy way out is the road to nowhere,'' Mr. Cortines said in announcing the new standards. "Our school system will fail in its obligation to this community unless we equalize educational opportunity and raise standards for all of our schools.''

Rather than taking such courses as "fundamentals of mathematics,'' students will be required to take the three-course math sequence now taken by students pursuing a college-preparatory diploma endorsed by the state board of regents. The math sequence includes algebra, geometry, trigonometry, logic, probability, and statistics.

In science, students will study earth science, biology, and chemistry. Courses in human biology and applied chemistry will be discontinued.

While students will not be required to seek regents-endorsed diplomas, the chancellor said he hoped more students would seek the degree.

Henry Duvall, a spokesman for the Council of the Great City Schools, said that while many urban districts have increased the number of math and science courses required for graduation, he knew of none that had specified that they all be academic courses.

'Expectation of Failure'

Askia Davis, a senior assistant to the chancellor, called New York City's current course-taking patterns "totally unacceptable.'' In a system where more than 75 percent of the students are black or Latino, he said, fewer than 15 percent of high school juniors are enrolled in academic math and science classes.

"What the chancellor is saying is that we have traditionally in this country had low expectations for students of color,'' Mr. Davis explained. "There's a built-in expectation of failure. We have to turn that around.''

Mr. Cortines has called for the system's high school division and the city's high school superintendents to come up with a plan by the end of the month for phasing out the nonacademic courses. At the same time, one of his top deputies is expected to present a plan for strengthening math and science education in middle schools, which are run by the city's 32 community school districts.

Schools that have been successful in scheduling large numbers of black and Latino students into advanced math and science courses will serve as models for other schools throughout the system.

Carol Gresser, the president of the city board of education, called the requirements "exciting for kids.'' With assurances from the chancellor that students will receive the support they need, she said, the board probably will back the change.

'A Monumental Task'

Educators last week praised Mr. Cortines's determination to end the two-track education system, but cautioned that the schools will need to move carefully to insure that students are successful.

"This is a monumental task; I applaud him for such an ambitious initiative,'' said Frances R. Curcio, an associate professor at Queens College of the City University of New York. "What worries me is to expect this for 9th graders in September. I think it's too much, too soon. What kind of support system would be in place to prepare children in K to 8 to be successful in this 9th-grade requirement?''

Bruce M. Alberts, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, hailed Mr. Cortines's "concentration on substance.''

"It is very important that the chancellor emphasize the fundamental learning that needs to go on in schools,'' he said.

Mr. Alberts said he has been talking with Mr. Cortines about launching a project to strengthen elementary science teaching in New York City. The two worked together on a similar program when Mr. Cortines was superintendent in San Francisco.

Moving the 300,000 students affected by the new requirements to higher-level coursework will require both intensive support and increased expectations, Mr. Davis said. The school system will offer professional development this summer for teachers, many of whom must shift from teaching lower-level classes.

Students, he said, will need mentoring, smaller classes, tutorials, and peer tutoring. Changes also may be made in school schedules, so that students spend seven or eight periods a week studying math, rather than five.

"We have to have a support system so that we are not programming kids for a higher level of frustration,'' he said.

Teacher Training Needed

While there are no firm estimates on what the initiative will cost, Mr. Davis said more state money will be needed to upgrade high school science laboratories. In addition, he noted, compensatory-education money can be redirected to helping students pass academic classes.

One challenge that the system is likely to face is finding fully qualified math and science teachers to teach the classes. According to the United Federation of Teachers, which supports the plan, 13,000 of the city's 69,000 teachers are not fully certified and hold emergency licenses.

Similar reforms are currently under way in six urban sites under the College Board's Equity 2000 project, which aims to eliminate tracking and increase minority students' college success.

The program, launched in 1990, requires all students to take algebra in 9th grade and geometry in 10th grade.

"Just to say, 'Thou shalt' does not mean it's going to happen,'' said Vinetta Jones, the national director of Equity 2000.

Teachers need intensive professional development in both content and pedagogy, she said, and students need "safety nets'' such as Saturday academies, study groups, summer programs, and hands-on, activity-oriented enrichment programs. Their families also must understand and be supportive of the push for higher standards and "become advocates for their children,'' she added.

Some districts participating in the project have increased the percentage of 9th graders taking algebra from 20 percent to 90 percent. Concerns about large numbers of students failing the course have proved largely unfounded, she said, with the passing rate remaining about 50 percent despite the increase in enrollment.

Mr. Cortines told a news conference that he did not think the higher standards would prompt students to drop out, noting that many complain of being bored in school.

'Educational Corruption'

The chancellor also announced that he has developed a plan for addressing the problems of the city's 100 lowest-performing schools.

Four elementary schools and two middle schools, which the chancellor said have shown no improvement since 1989, will be subject to a joint takeover by the chancellor and the district superintendent.

Mr. Cortines complained, however, that he has no clear authority under the city's decentralized system to intervene in such cases of "educational corruption.''

In testimony last month before the state Assembly's education committee, Mr. Cortines asked lawmakers for the power to attack "intolerable educational situations.''

The chancellor said he will ask district superintendents to intervene in 14 more failing schools and said 20 more troubled schools will be required to take remedial action.

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