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When Canisius College professor Richard Escobales criticized the state for "dumbing down" Regents math exams, he got a phone call at home from New York's education chief.

But Richard P. Mills -- a champion of higher standards -- didn't argue or reprimand. He wanted to talk.

Mills visited Escobales at Canisius, and, for an hour, they discussed a broad range of math-related topics, including the writings of Hung-Hsi Wu, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Mills later appointed Escobales to a panel that will advise him on math requirements for high school students.

"He's a genuinely sincere person, a very nice person," Escobales said. "He is trying to do things and shows a willingness to meet us halfway."

Mills is a crusader in a business suit.

On Thursday, his nonstop, 15-hour work day -- 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. -- started with a chauffeured drive from Albany to Le Roy, during which he did paperwork and made phone calls. Then he visited two school districts, met with school business administrators and gave a dinner speech to owners of small businesses.

"I'm not trying to win a contest by putting in the hours, but New Yorkers respect hard work," Mills said. "You have to show up."

And whether he's kneeling to talk to a kindergarten pupil or addressing school superintendents, the emphasis is the same.

"If you ask him about the weather, he'll find a way to talk about educational standards," said Donald A. Ogilvie, superintendent of the
Erie I Board of Cooperative Educational Services. "He's the most focused individual I've met in my career."

Since being named commissioner in 1995, Mills and the state Board of Regents have dramatically increased high school graduation requirements, toughened up standards in lower grades, issued annual report cards on individual public schools and pressured low-performing schools to improve or shut down.

Supporters say those measures will boost achievement levels, better prepare pupils for college and work and will force schools and students to reach their potential.

Critics maintain that large numbers of less capable students will either fail or drop out, that course work will be watered down for high-achievers and that test preparation will take precedence over broader educational goals.

Educators said Mills acknowledged those criticisms initially but dealt with them in depth only after his reforms were firmly established.

"If he had allowed himself to be mired down early on, there would have been no momentum established," Ogilvie said.

"He's very savvy," said Robert Fort, interim superintendent of the Kenmore-Tonawanda Schools and former superintendent in East Aurora. "He's able to sense what's needed the moment it's needed. He convinced me that there's a method to the madness."

Both critics and supporters agree that Mills has focused New York State's attention and energy on school reform like never before.

"People decided they had best sign on to this," Fort said. "This is going to happen."

Since 1995, Mills has visited more than 150 schools. During a tour in Le Roy on Thursday, he chatted with high school student leaders, stopped in seven classrooms and the library, talked to three kindergarten teachers in the hallway and went to the faculty room to thank teachers for their "championship behavior."

Mills, 53, joked during a recent interview that if he knew how tough it would be to tackle a statewide reform initiative, he would have started earlier in his career.

"It's a spiritual effort and a physical effort as well as an intellectual effort," he said.

While sticking meticulously to his schedule, Mills manages to cover all his bases.

In Buffalo, he several times broke away for private, unscheduled conversations with Andres Garcia, an advocate of improvements at Grover Cleveland High School.

"I call him the people's commissioner," said Garcia, president of Columbus Community Health Center. "When you sit down and talk to him, he listens, he's honest, and, most of all, he keeps his word."

While reluctant to discuss it during a recent interview, Mills, previously commissioner of education in Vermont, clearly sees a need to set a personal example.

He often discusses how his father mortgaged the family house to send him to college and last winter told gym teachers here that he lifts weights and runs at 5:30 a.m. to stay fit and relieve stress.

Robert Bennett, a Regent who works closely with Mills, said he has never seen him lose his temper or his train of thought.

"I've heard him say we have to discipline ourselves, we need to set examples for others," Ogilvie said. "He knows who he works for. He works for everybody."

Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation and a frequent critic of the state reform plan, said Mills has assumed a prominent role largely because he took office as people were searching for answers to perceived educational ills.

"He seized upon that and presented a world view that people have latched on to," Rumore said. "The reason he has been so successful is that people are grasping at straws."

Bennett, in contrast, said Mills' leadership derives from deep-seated beliefs and his ability to articulate them.

"He has a fundamental belief that kids can do much better than they're doing and that they are to be considered first and foremost in this whole effort," Bennett said. "I think he absolutely, totally believes that."

Because Mills is developing a growing national reputation, the Regents late last year were concerned that he would leave for another position.

Bennett said Mills put those rumors to rest by telling the Regents: "This to me is center court at Wimbledon. It doesn't get any better than this."

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