New Chancellor Moves Against 16 N.Y.C. Schools

By Joanna Richardson — November 01, 1995 3 min read

Chancellor Rudy Crew has punctuated his first weeks on the job in New York City with swift action to prod 16 troubled schools to clean up their acts.

State officials had cited severe shortcomings at the schools as far back as 1989.

Mr. Crew made the announcement last month, days after the state education commissioner, Richard P. Mills, sent investigators to check on those schools. They found unprepared teachers, outdated practices, and some classes in “near chaos,” according to the state team’s reports.

Mr. Mills--himself new on the job--said last week the state gave the district’s leaders an ultimatum: Come up with a strategy by the end of November or face the possible closure of the 16 schools.

“My intent was to draw immediate attention to these schools and to compel” the district to turn them around, said the commissioner.

The state found that one additional school had improved enough in six years to escape a takeover or other action.

Mr. Crew, the 45-year-old former superintendent of the Tacoma, Wash., and Sacramento, Calif., schools, took over for Ramon C. Cortines on Oct. 15.

He has laid out several options for the failing schools: reassigning their principals, replacing their staffs, or breaking up some of the larger schools altogether.

Fast Reaction

The state has given Mr. Crew until the end of the school year to show dramatic improvement in 14 of the schools, or have them closed or reorganized. The other two schools have been given an extra year because they have already made some inroads, Mr. Mills said.

The announcement of Mr. Crew’s intervention in the schools came as the chancellor took his first steps into the city’s treacherous political waters--and emerged smiling. The new chancellor had separate talks with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Carol Gresser, the school board president.

Early on, at least, there appeared to be little of the discord that defined the mayor’s recent relations with Mr. Cortines and Ms. Gresser.

In addition, Mr. Crew has held several highly publicized meetings designed to build support from black political leaders, the city’s five borough presidents, and New York business executives--groups whose help he will need to restore some programs that were cut during last year’s budget crunch.

And he announced that he would try to boost attendance for the district’s 1 million students from 85 percent to 95 percent over the next year and a half.

But Mr. Crew’s response to the state’s concerns may be the best clue to his management style, state officials said last week.

Commissioner Mills said of the takeovers: “I can’t emphasize enough how refreshing it is to see local leadership take up this response.”

The district, however, appeared to have few other options.

Mr. Cortines and other city officials had already focused on improving many of the New York City schools that were under state review.

In all, 90 city schools are on the state’s list of sites where major improvements are needed, said Allan Ray, a spokesman for the state education department.

A number of schools that have shown recent improvement will be taken off the review list. But the 16 schools visited by the state investigators have not improved much since they were first singled out in 1989, Mr. Ray added.

Among the problems the teams identified were:

  • Large numbers of uncertified or inexperienced teachers;
  • Severe overcrowding;
  • A lack of appropriate classroom materials; and
  • Reform plans that had not been carried out.

In one elementary school--where a majority of students could not read at grade level--a 4th-grade teacher who had been rated as unsatisfactory was simply transferred to the 1st grade, Mr. Mills said.

In another school, according to the state team’s report, “the majority of the children talked, crawled, jumped up and down, and walked around the room” during a lesson.

Union Support

The district’s labor unions said they support Mr. Crew’s plans to intervene in the troubled schools.

The United Federation of Teachers and the Council of Supervisors and Administrators had already worked closely with Mr. Cortines and the school board to find solutions for the failing schools.

Ronnie Davis, a spokesman for the UFT, said the union will support the interventions even if it means replacing an entire school’s staff.

“We don’t think it will come to that,” Mr. Davis added. “If you give schools the proper resources--like teacher training and that sort of thing--they should turn around.”

Mr. Mills emphasized that the district’s intervention “is not an attack” on teachers or administrators. But he added that many were not prepared for their work.

“I’m simply calling time,” he said. “These schools must be made to work or they must be closed.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1995 edition of Education Week as New Chancellor Moves Against 16 N.Y.C. Schools