Joseph A. Fernandez: 1921—: Chancellor, Educator Biography
Joseph A. Fernandez has remained one of the most groundbreaking and controversial figures in the field of education. A high school dropout and former gang leader, Fernandez turned the heads of policy makers, administrators, teachers, and parents. In fact, some of the very issues he brought forth for consideration, or attempted to have implemented have become part of the curriculum as it was at the beginning of the 21st century, including Title I, School of Choice, and school wide projects. Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University has referred to Fernandez as "a national educational treasure." Fernandez was honored with the Champion of Educational Reform award in 1991 from the Hispanic Heritage Awards. In 1998 he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award for Democratic Leadership and Community Relations from the University of Miami, School of Education.
Fernandez was born on December 13, 1935 to Jose Maria and Generosa (Alvarez) Fernandez Sr. in West Harlem, New York City. Fernandez, a high school dropout, joined the Air Force where he earned his high school equivalency certificate. He returned home in January of 1956 to serve the remaining six months. Fernandez married Lily Pons in May of that same year. Upon release from the Air Force, he enrolled at Columbia University under the GI Bill of Rights. Due to the medical problems of their first child, Fernandez and his family relocated to Florida, where Fernandez enrolled at the University of Miami. Fernandez received a B.A. in education from that university, and later obtained both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in education. Fernandez and Lily have four children: Keith, Kevin, Kristen, and Kami.
Soon after Fernandez began teaching, he saw his role as educator in a brand new light. In his autobiography he wrote, "I heard a speech that changed my life—or at least my thoughts on what I should do with it." Fernandez gathered with 400 to 500 new teachers who were attending an orientation, under the direction of John Hall, superintendent of Dade County Schools in Florida. It was not what Hall had said that was important, but the way in which he had said it. He talked about the mystique of the educator and the importance of the classroom teacher—how they should never be sold short. From that moment on, whenever he had an opportunity to involve himself in systems politics, he took it.
At Coral Park High School, Fernandez played an active role in politics and was voted union steward. In 1969 Florida had the first statewide teachers strike in American history, and Fernandez's entire math department accompanied him on the picket line. During his second year of teaching at Hialeah-Miami Lakes he was elected secretary and treasurer of the Dade County School Administrators Association that in turn landed him the position of the assistant principal. By 1975 he had advanced to principal of Coral Park High School; he soon after became superintendent. Impressed by his success, the New York City's School System offered him the position of chancellor.
The 1969 changes created the dual system of school administration that persisted until 1996. Under that system, the thirty-two local school boards and superintendents controlled the elementary and junior high schools, while the chancellor and the Board of Education controlled the high schools and special education. This created a system with inherent tensions that were difficult to resolve. There were no clear lines of authority and responsibility was diffused. A particularly irregular aspect of the system was that an appointed official, the chancellor, was responsible for supervising elected officials, the community school board members. The chancellor had accountability for the system, but had no power. The only clear authority the chancellor held was to remove a superintendent or a school board member for a violation of the law. This made it almost impossible for the chancellor to intervene in order to remedy educational failures.
Litigation in this area over thirty years failed to clear up the situation. Frustrations grew as each of a brief succession of chancellor's was held to impossible standards of accountability, given the lack of authority they had over the community school boards. During Fernandez's rein, the end result remained the same. He began laying the groundwork for a number of pilot programs and satellite schools. A progressive board was a must if reform was to work. Then, of course, came the real downside. According to Fernandez "Once more it was education that suffered. Programs were discredited, initiatives fade, and discouragement sets in." Early signs indicated good discipline, attendance, and grades. Unfortunately, this did not continue. A board's job was to make policy; a chancellor's was to administer that policy and make all personal decisions.
In 1990 Fernandez, then head of New York City's public schools, proposed a program to make condoms available upon request to students in the city schools and to provide classroom instruction on the proper way to use the contraceptive. The proposal was adopted in 1991, but not without opposing views by some parents. New York City became the first school system in the country to make condoms available to students. However, a group of parents challenged the constitutionality of the program. A New York State appeals court ruled in favor of the parents and invalidated the program in Alfonso v. Fernandez in 1993. When all was considered, this was the initial program that lost his popularity.
What Fernandez has long been noted for was his School-Based Management program (SBM), which was a process that focused on teaching and learning, not governance issues. Beginning in 1990, the union worked closely with Fernandez and the SBM initiative began in the 1991-92 school year in Dade County, Florida while Fernandez was the superintendent. Fernandez set up satellite schools, which were public schools located in the workplace. These schools allowed parents to take their children to work instead of leaving them home alone for several hours a day. This reduced the absentee rates for children and parents.
Fernandez was the Chancellor of the New York City Public School System, this country's largest school system with more than 940,000 students. A frontrunner of educational reform, Fernandez's SBM program was implemented in 24 states. This initiative gave teachers and administrators decision-making authority on issues ranging from curriculum to budget. Dade County and New York City offered broader fields for its testing and follow-through.
While many praised Fernandez for his efforts, two of his shortcomings were the controversial Rainbow Curriculum, and his autobiography, Tales Out of School, published in 1993. Fernandez's Rainbow Curriculum was a program to teach children about homosexuality, and he revealed that he had used heroine in his autobiography. In an interview with a New York Daily News reporter, Fernandez defended his Rainbow Curriculum and stated,"If we're ever going to get this country together we have to deal with these issues of hate. Kids learn biases from us, from adults. We have to teach them tolerance through education." Nevertheless, parental anger persuaded the New York City School Board to fire Fernandez on February 10, 1993.
SBM gave teachers, principals, and parents a voice in the decision making process at the school level. SBM did become a reality and was incorporated into 240 New York City Schools. His long-term goal had been to have SBM in place throughout all of New York's schools by 1996. During Fernandez's short tenor as superintendent, the SBM program had been adopted by almost one-quarter of all the schools, attendance was the best it had been in twenty-five years, the dropout rate had dropped to under seven percent; the lowest in history, more than 60 percent of students tested at or above grade level in math, and there was a multicultural education program to be fully phased in by 1996.
When all is considered, Fernandez had set the stage for the most ambitious school restructuring program in the country. In contrast, as of 1999, New York City's 1,212 public schools have not followed the groundwork that Fernandez had laid out in order to make the learning experience favorable for students, as well as teachers and principals. However, the State Legislature intervened in an attempt to create parent involvement, and also overhauled the 32 community school boards. Fernandez's efforts continue to make headlines coast to coast. Fernandez remains focused on education. He has served on the Board of Directors of Touchstone Applied Science Associates, an educational information and learning company in Brewster, New York, since December of 1998. Fernandez has had an important effect on education in America, and it is evident that he still has much more to contribute.
Fernandez, Joseph A. and John Underwood, Tales Out of School, Little, Brown and Company, 1993.
National Review, January, 1993, p. 18.
The New Yorker, April 12, 1993, p. 43.
New York Times, October 20, 1995.
Publishers Weekly, November 16, 1992, p. 50.
Washington Monthly, March, 1993, p.59.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Thelma Tyler of Touchstone Applied Science Associates, Inc. on May 28, 2002.
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