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New York Schools' Controversial Idea Man

AT times it seems as if New York City Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez has a new idea for the classroom every day. Consider a sample. He recently suggested a warranty plan for employers by which schools would guarantee the basic skills of any high school graduate. He has proposed that some of the 40 schools the city will soon begin building be operated by businesses, universities, or teacher groups.

Mr. Fernandez's controversial proposal to distribute condoms on request to students in all public high schools in response to the high number of adolescent AIDS cases in this city is likely to be formally approved by the school board this week.

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Another controversial idea, initiated by a state legislator but encouraged by Fernandez, would allow one high school, as an experiment, to place special emphasis in its courses on the problems of young black and Hispanic men.

The image projected by this steady stream of declarations is that of a man willing to float and encourage new ideas but one who is very much in charge.

These are tough times for urban school superintendents.

Many big city school systems, including New York's, have been moving toward more decision making at the district or school level. Leaders who encourage others to speak up, who can stand up to criticism from those who argue that progress is too slow, and who can cope successfully with declining tax revenues are increasingly hard to find and hard to keep.

More than a dozen major cities are currently shopping for superintendents. Stephanie Robinson, education director of the National Urban League, notes that only 20 percent of more than 80 city school chiefs who signed a pact with her organization in 1985 to work together on school improvement are still in office.

``A business like Xerox or IBM couldn't run with that kind of constant administrative change,'' she says.

Though New York City's Fernandez has his share of critics, some experts say he is exactly the new kind of urban school leader needed in this difficult transition period.

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``You need a stronger and more self-confident superintendent who can communicate with the public,'' says Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States. ``Fernandez is a guy saying, `This system isn't good enough and we've got to change it.' ''

Jeanne Frankl, executive director of the Public Education Association in New York, is both a Fernandez supporter and, where she feels it is warranted, a thoughtful critic:

``I think his story probably reflects the paradox of trying to be a superintendent in a big city these days. People really expect you to come up with ideas as if you're going to turn the whole system around ... the experience we've had in New York makes it clear that unless a leader can convey that sense, he or she is virtually all washed up.''

``Fernandez is wonderful at grabbing the imagination and confidence of the broad public by taking a lot of initiatives, moving on them fast, and by speaking very straightforwardly about his intentions,'' she says.

``However, it's almost a contradiction in terms for someone to be that sort of a strong, I-can-do-it-all leader and really be invested in motivating others and encouraging them to shine,'' Ms. Frankl adds.

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