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State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills Friday urged several thousand school board members meeting here to rise above their fears and doubts to make the state's new high school graduation requirements successful.

"Our challenge right now is the absolute necessity of leading change and not being dragged along by it," Mills said at the annual convention of the New York State School Boards Association in the Buffalo Convention Center. "There are times that call for urgency, and this is such a time."

Mills strongly defended the state's school-reform effort, but acknowledged breaking new ground is challenging for teachers, students, parents and board members.

"Where there's significant change, there's going to be fear," he told his audience, which consisted largely of school board members and school administrators. "Where there's fear, there's going to be resistance."

Mills is the chief architect of new standards that would require most students to pass at least five Regents exams to graduate from high school, and to take additional units of math and science.

The new requirements, which will be considered by the state Board of Regents next month, would be phased in and would take effect fully for students entering ninth grade in the year 2001.

Setting the standards, Mills said, is the easy part. Making them work is far more difficult.

"This will require new thinking from all of us," he said. "I trust you. I believe in you. I know together we can make this happen. It's about our survival as an institution."

Mills said many of the state's more than 700 school districts are moving in the right direction by altering class schedules, working with students after hours, forming partnerships with business and community groups, and offering a variety of learning environments.

His speech was greeted with widespread enthusiasm, but several board members said meeting higher standards will require more resources, especially in poor urban or rural districts.

"Not all kids are on the same level playing field," said Marlies Wesolowski, president of the Buffalo School Board. "Somehow we've got to look at the question of equity."

Carline C. Shipley, president of the School Board Association said: "Overcoming the lack of resources is a real obstacle. The question is how to rally for more resources and at the same time do more with those we already have."

Mills also countered claims that the new standards will be too tough for less capable students, causing them to become discouraged and drop out.

To the contrary, he said, the traditional system "fostered mediocrity" for about half the high school students in the state.

"Many students have restricted themselves to an artificially low ceiling, and we have aided and abetted them," he said.

"They came out into the world without the skills they needed. That's passed. That's not going to happen anymore."

"We can't know how many children with disabilities can pass a Regents exam," Mills said. "We've almost never let them try."

After the speech, Judith Katz, president of the Erie I Board of Cooperative Educational Services, backed higher expectations for special education students. "If we don't do that, we'll never know how far the kids can go," she said.

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