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By Terrence McCoy
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Rudolph "Rudy" Crew is a busy man these days. While doing the $325,000-a-year job of running Miami-Dade County Public Schools, he has been on tour promoting his new tome, Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools. Since its August 7 release, he has been interviewed on National Public Radio, C-SPAN, and Kansas City's television news station Fox 4. He has gotten ink everywhere from Vanity Fair to the Daily News to the Times-Picayune. On September 11 the former New York schools chancellor paid a visit to his old stomping ground for a book-signing party at his literary agent's swanky Greenwich Village apartment.
Give the man his kudos. He certainly understands the art of self-promotion. Though media reports have been ungodly kind, Only Connect is 258 pages of platitudes and blather that becomes particularly offensive when you get to the parts about the nation's fourth-largest school district, which he runs.
For example, at the end of the first chapter, on page 25, Crew rhapsodizes, "When I walk into my office in downtown Miami, when I visit classrooms in Liberty City and Coconut Grove and Palmetto, in Homestead and Little Havana, I see children and parents and teachers looking for something good today. And they are finding it. The Miami-Dade County public school system has been called a model for the state of Florida; I think it's on its way to being a model for the nation as a whole. The system can change, and without vouchers and charter schools. Our parents will tell you that."
Earth to Rudy: The district produced 26 F schools last year, and less than 50 percent of students who started high school earned diplomas.
Zulma Alvarez scoffs when New Times reads her the passage. Outside Booker T. Washington High School on a blustery afternoon before the last bell, the single Cuban-American mother in her forties notes that one of her 17-year-old twin boys attends Booker T. "I don't see anything good," she says. "Personally I am frustrated. In fact my son wants me to put him in another school."
Booker T. is one of nine high schools in Crew's much ballyhooed School Improvement Zone, which he launched shortly after his hiring in July 2004. He describes the effort on page 223: "In Miami we decided to meet the challenge of those low-performing, low-demand schools, sapped by too many underqualified teachers. We asked our veteran teachers to be the starter dough, to begin the process of change. That meant transferring to an Improvement Zone school for three to four years. In return for higher pay, they would work longer hours and longer school years, but most important, their mission was to create successful classrooms and provide a model for other, less experienced or less skilled teachers in those schools."
Situated in the center of Overtown, Booker T. has a student population of 1362, evenly split between Hispanics and blacks. Since Crew's 2004 arrival, the school has twice been rated D and last year earned an F. According to its 2006-2007 School Improvement Zone plan, which is posted on the school district's Website, 89 percent of ninth- and tenth-grade students read below their grade level. The school's graduation rate is a dismal 36 percent. That's not a sound return on the $30 million per year in taxpayer money the school district has invested in the School Improvement Zone.
But you wouldn't know that from reading Only Connect.
It doesn't get better. On page 33 Crew proclaims himself an authority on what it takes to make a child a "mature and conscious contributor to society." He writes, "We miss personal integrity and civic awareness in our schools, but we've stopped expecting our schools to teach them." To illustrate his point, he recalls the time his daughter Lauren nagged him for brand-name tennis shoes: "She put on one of those 'I Need to Have' campaigns for a pair of sneakers she'd seen in a Janet Jackson video.... I did what we parents do more often than we should, which was take the path of least resistance. Off to Foot Locker. Lauren cheered up, and she all but hit the clouds when some salesgirl handed her the 'right' pair....
"But labels aren't what you need to work well in a team or create a new business or raise a family. You need personal integrity ... a moral center ... a sense of ethics even when you're alone."
One has to wonder if Crew ever relayed that lesson to his sons Ryan and Russell. On December 29, 2004, the brothers were arrested and charged with aggravated battery. The pair, at the time in their late twenties, allegedly beat up Patrick Dorneval outside Fat Tuesday bar in CocoWalk. Dorneval's face was left a broken, bloody mess. Prosecutors later charged Russell with petty theft for lifting a homeless man's wallet. Subsequently the Crew boys were placed on one year of probation and were ordered to pay Dorneval $25,000 in restitution.
Three months after the arrest, Crew told New Times: "I'm proud of the men they have become because I know the full measure of their character. It's regrettable that the fact that they are my sons is drawing attention to an incident that wouldn't merit it otherwise."