Sounding more like a preacher than a teacher, Baltimore's school chief yesterday rallied the city's school principals behind the besieged, underfunded school system.
"The cavalry's not coming this time, folks -- but that doesn't mean we have to die," said Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, in a motivational session with principals at Coldstream Park Elementary School.
Amprey warned that state education aid will fall short this year, but went on to say, "Let's not hide behind money . . . because that's the easy way."
True school improvement, he said, "comes from a determined group of people in that school, and it comes from leadership."
And he urged principals to be aggressive in using their authority to spark a grass-roots revival.
"I'm telling you that I expect you to lead your schools," he said. "There's a sense of urgency here, and there's a sense of time, and we've got to move ahead."
In the course of his presentation, Amprey touched two raw nerves for many principals: school violence, and the upcoming release of the state's annual "report card" for local school systems.
In recent weeks, the system has been put on the defensive by a series of beatings and other incidents involving students on or near school property.
"I am deeply, deeply concerned with the violence that's going on in our city," he said. "I accept what we have to do with our schools, we have to make them a safe place first."
But Amprey also noted that "our kids come reflecting what's in our city. We're public schools, we take them all." A solution to the problem of school violence must include a change in values, he said.
Amprey also urged principals not to be disheartened by results of the annual Maryland State Performance Program, which measures how well individual school districts meet state achievement standards.
The Sun reported Sunday that the city schools met only one of the 13 standards, compared with a statewide average of five out of 13. (State officials, refusing comment, have clamped an official embargo on the report until next Tuesday.)
Amprey said the report simply marks a starting point for improvement.
"Don't worry about being defensive . . . we start now," the superintendent said. "This city is experiencing a negative self-concept about its schools. It's not nearly as bad as they would tell us it is."
Amprey's message struck a responsive chord with many principals.
"He's here for the kids -- there's nothing that's going to stand in the way," said Gertrude Williams, longtime principal of Barclay Elementary School. "He really wants to give the power back to the principals."
"Dr. Amprey has a lot of the right ideas, and he has the right attitude," said A.W. Strickland, the new director of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. "He said he's going to put the responsibility where it needs to be, and that's with the principals."
And Sheila Kolman, head of the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association, called the superintendent "refreshingly honest."
"What he is saying is true," she said. "We have to improve our self-image."
Amprey said afterward that the meeting with principals was long overdue.
"I really wanted to relate to them they are the people who have the major responsibility for making a difference in the schools," he said.