Seeking out the solutions to problems in city schools Homer Schamp tackles another education crisis


HOMER SCHAMP greets a visitor outside his new office on the campus of Coppin State College almost apologetically. The closet-sized room dominated by new computer equipment is too small for chatting, he says, as he ushers one into a nearby classroom.

The tiny office that he shares with a secretary is the beginnings of the Center for Excellence in Urban Education, a product of the University of Maryland System intended to help Baltimore city schools improve the quality of their education.

"The center itself will be kind of a broker," says Schamp, explaining that as acting director he will be a liaison between the system's Baltimore-area campuses and the Baltimore public schools. "It involves finding out what the express needs of the city school system are, finding out what the resources of the university are to do this and finding the money to get it done." Funding, he says, will come from state and federal agencies as well as civic and corporate groups that want to be involved.

His modest office must remind Schamp of his early days at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. There, in June 1965, as only the second appointee of the yet-to-be-built school, Schamp assumed the post of dean of faculty and began the slow, arduous task of hiring a faculty.

Under the leadership of Albin Kuhn, who had been appointed vice president for the Baltimore campuses, Schamp hired a small group of educators and with them set the wheels in motion for a liberal arts university.

They worked out of an old stone farmhouse on the 475-acre site in southwestern Baltimore County, farmland that had most recently been the bailiwick of Spring Grove State Hospital. After little more than a year, in September 1966, the university opened to 758 freshmen. Three academic structures -- a classroom building, a multipurpose building and a lecture hall -- had been built and Schamp had 35 faculty members on staff.

Today, the university has an enrollment of nearly 10,000 students and a full- and part-time faculty of 595.

Schamp officially retired from UMBC in July, at age 67; but he hardly retired from working. He had already agreed to the one-year assignment from the University of Maryland System to get things moving at the brand new Center for Excellence in Urban Education.

Such an imposing task does not intimidate this quiet, self-effacing man whose first contact with the university was as a physicist. He's often been involved in projects on the ground floor.

After earning his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Michigan in 1952, he joined the faculty of the University of Maryland as an associate professor and became a key player in beginning the Institute for Molecular Physics there. He eventually became a full professor and in 1964 was named director of the institute. He also is credited by colleagues with almost single-handedly establishing a chapter of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa at the university in 1964.

They were just two of Schamp's many efforts toward putting College Park on the map academically, says Robert Shedd, a longtime associate whom Schamp recruited from Ohio State University in 1965 to be UMBC's first division chairman in humanities.

"I once heard Homer describe his method of operation as going around planting seeds and then standing back to watch them grow," says Shedd, now retired from UMBC.

After four years as the university's first dean of faculty, Schamp went on to become UMBC's first vice chancellor for academic affairs, and in 1971 he moved into the department of education as research professor of education.

Since then he has had his hand in some aspect of the public school system -- introducing new science teaching methods, initiating changes in the curricula, training existing teachers and of course preparing UMBC students for teaching.

John Toll, president of the University of Maryland from 1978 to 1989 and a physicist himself, likes to describe his former colleague as a problem-solver:

"Homer has always been more than a scientist. I've always believed that a physicist is basically someone trained to solve problems. You can solve a physics problem or you can solve social problems."

It was that problem-solving ability that brought Schamp back to College Park on a two-year loan from UMBC in 1988 to serve as assistant to Toll, who had been appointed chancellor of the newly legislated University of Maryland System. The system was created by merging the five campuses of the University of Maryland with the six member schools of the State Universities and Colleges system -- namely Coppin, Towson, Bowie, Frostburg and Salisbury state institutions and the University of Baltimore.

Schamp was called into service to analyze issues such as salary and funding parity and to sort out the many other sensitive personnel and academic questions that inevitably arise with the consolidation of so many different institutions.

"It was nice to have a critical mind here to deal with questions as they came up," says Jean Spencer, deputy chancellor of the University of Maryland System. "He could take on an issue, work it through logically and come up with solutions."

Now the issue that needs ordering is the relationship between public schools and the surrounding community that can lend them support.

There is a growing consensus in Baltimore business and civic groups that solutions to urban education problems should be shared by the community, says Schamp. He refers to a UMS Task Force report issued earlier this year establishing a framework for the Center for Excellence.

"Topics that once were the exclusive domain of educators have started to attract the attention of much wider audiences," the report reads, "including business and political leaders who have come to realize that the nation's economic and social future is directly dependent on the ability of our schools to produce educated and productive citizens."

Baltimore, being a city of neighborhoods, is ripe for this community approach, says Schamp, who with his wife Juliana and two sons has lived in the city neighborhood of Ten Hills north of Catonsville for 25 years. Being a self-proclaimed Baltimore booster and a pathfinder himself, Schamp would like to see Baltimore set the pace for other urban areas.

As he sets the wheels of the new education center in motion, he is optimistic, if not a little defensive of educators:

"The problems of the schools today are problems that are really outside the schools. Schools have always been loaded up with doing things, besides education, to solve society's problems . . . and they've taken these jobs on," he says.

"But a supportive environment starts at home. I don't think there's any question that children who are read to, who are loved, who are well-fed do better in school."

In the long run, he envisions, among other projects, well-attended neighborhood centers where parents will want to gather for guidance on parenting and improving their own education, for helping their kids with schoolwork, for access to child-care and health-care information. A center, he says, where the community is in the forefront and the university's resources are in the shadows.

It would not be unlike the way he has operated over the years -- dropping a seed and then standing back to let it flourish in the sun.

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