A New Course for Troubled N.Y.C. Schools CHANCELLOR CREW Series: Second in a Series. the First Article in This Series Ran April 30

Article excerpt

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. …