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Superintendent's Story of His Rise Seems Intended to Grab Headlines

TALES OUT OF SCHOOL: JOSEPH FERNANDEZ'S CRUSADE TO RESCUE AMERICAN EDUCATION By Joseph A. Fernandez with John Underwood, Little, Brown & Co., 278pp., $24. 95.

MOST autobiographies chronicle a completed career. Joseph Fernandez's autobiography may do more to direct the course of his controversial career than to record it.

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Fernandez signed the book contract for "Tales Out of School" as he left the job of superintendent of public schools in Dade County, Fla., to return to his native New York.

Yet the autobiography, written with former journalist John Underwood, is being published just months before Fernandez's contract as head of the New York City school system expires.

In "Tales Out of School," Fernandez predicts that "the politics in New York are almost certain to bring me down sooner or later." Clearly, he is rooting for sooner rather than later.

Fernandez is known as a controversial figure who doesn't hesitate to speak his mind. This book is sprinkled with frank comments and criticisms of his bosses on the New York City Board of Education, as well as New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and New York City Mayor David Dinkins. Some New Yorkers view the book as Fernandez's early announcement of his resignation.

As if all that isn't enough publicity for one book to generate, Fernandez also uses the autobiography to reveal his use of heroin as a teenage dropout in Harlem.

Unlike the many political jabs scattered throughout the book, this revelation makes a strong point on Fernandez's behalf. He refers to himself as a "redeemed dropout from Spanish Harlem" and calls education his "emancipation."

"I know firsthand what education can do to save a life," he writes with conviction. "I don't have to ask the experts or read books about it. I've been there."

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As a young Puerto Rican living on the tough streets of New York, Fernandez got involved in gangs and drugs. But he joined the Air Force, where he earned his high school equivalency degree. After leaving the service, he enrolled at Columbia University on the GI Bill.

The tough-guy attitude that Fernandez acquired on the streets of Harlem hasn't faded much over the years. At times, this autobiography comes off as a fists-up offensive. Fernandez wants the world to know that he's still in charge of his own life.

The successes he enjoyed in Miami - where he rose rapidly through the ranks from teacher to principal to superintendent - have been harder to come by in New York City. Fernandez delves into the details of his effort to bring "site-based management," "satellite schools," and other reforms to both Miami and New York.

Unfortunately, this book is more noteworthy for its generation of news than for its content.

Fernandez is one of the most innovative, hard-pushing education reformers at work in today's schools. He knows what works and why.

But he spends too much time listing his own accomplishments and criticizing others instead of sharing insights and reflections on what he's learned. And worse, the book is marred by dull, cliche-ridden writing that doesn't sustain interest through its many tangents and self-serving stories.

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