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Dr. Amprey: We must mend the schools A new spirit urged along with money

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore's school system needs a renaissance of the spirit as much as it needs additional resources, says Superintendent Walter G. Amprey.

Money alone will not close the gaps, he says. What's needed is commitment, innovative leadership at the school level, teamwork within the system and support from people outside it.

Improved schools provide an antidote to social decay, Dr. Amprey says, and a strengthening of public education in Baltimore will benefit the entire region.

Conversely, he says, a failure to act now will endanger thousands of children and cause a hemorrhage of costly social problems.

"We've got to reform the school system," says the superintendent. "What we're doing right now is not working effectively . . . everybody agrees on that."

City children need hope, he says. "They see failure all around them. They have to be motivated by believable hope that things will be better."

Here is a summary of Dr. Amprey's remarks during a wide-ranging interview with Sun reporters:

"Baltimore's on fire"

* The school crisis is everyone's problem. "I've got to convince people in this city who don't work for the school system that . . . they have no choice but to roll their sleeves up and help me, to work with me."

* Failure will have a domino effect. "We've got to convince those people outside of Baltimore . . . that they're inextricably tied to the future of the city and that they don't have much choice."

"They might be a couple years away from us from an economic point of view -- even closer from a demographic point of view. . . . So they've got to help."

"If your neighbor's house is on fire, you better help him put it out. Well, Baltimore's on fire."

"The crisis is happening"

* Inaction will be disastrous for children. "It's going to cost us our future. . . . It's just a matter of how long it takes, how many kids we lose, and how much it costs us to come to the realization that we are now paying for being short-sighted."

* Many citizens are apathetic. "I don't think they care. I think we have to force people to think beyond themselves. What's happening in Baltimore is happening to you. It's not just happening in Baltimore. It's all over. The crisis is happening."

* Scrimping on education is injurious to everyone. "I don't think that this society, that this country, is investing in its future."

"It's self- defeating. . . . It's going to hurt us all in the long run."

* The fallout of a weak educational system includes unemployment, drugs and crime. "I can see the problems growing exponentially."

"Our city seems to be just chasing its tail. . . . It's like the Three Stooges act. . . . We're all trying to get through the door and we're complaining and running around blaming each other."

"My thrust and emphasis"

* The school system's biggest needs fall into three categories: "better school-based leaders, better curriculum that deals with crucial problems like attendance, and a personal vision for all employees of the school system."

"Most of my thrust and emphasis has been in those three areas."

* Innovative leadership within schools is the engine of progress. "I don't think people are telling us that it's all money. I think it's about attitude and commitment, and that's where I've decided to focus."

* Curriculum is "the fuel that drives the engine" and must generate a new vitality in the public schools.

"We've got to address attendance. So many of our youngsters, K through 12, find it more inviting to be outside the schools rather than inside. . . . I think we have to find the curriculum that understands how kids learn naturally."

* Each staff member must feel like an important member of a team. "There must be a personal vision in place for all the employees of the school system. People must feel good about their own involvement and future."

"Very demoralized" teachers

* The instructional staff suffers from inadequate support and poor morale. "Currently, our teachers feel very demoralized and unsupported. Of course, the lack of pay, although it appears to be a salient concern, is not nearly as big in their minds as some issues relative to feeling rewarded and feeling that they have support and work in a climate that will allow them to be successful."

"There's a serious need to train our school-based administrators on how to create the climate that is motivating and rewarding."

* Baltimore's teachers are competent; they must meet certification requirements. But many teachers are not motivated. "I am not sure I would accept the fact that they are ineffective to the point they have to be removed."

"I am starting with the belief that we have a large cadre of people who are not giving it 100 percent, who don't have a curriculum in front of them that they've been trained to use."

"As a result of that, you've got a person who some untrained principal is saying is not effective, and the easy thing to do, just as we say give me more money, is to move this person out."

"And I'm saying we've got to change that attitude, to work on that curriculum and to put that person in place with the training, attitude and motivation."

* Even without many tools, an energized teacher can work wonders. "I have seen teachers who are very motivated and committed -- with very few resources -- make a heck of a difference."

"The bottom line is attitude and how that's used."

Shortages: fact of life

* A lack of resources has created shortages of textbooks, library books and other basic tools of learning. "Do we have enough materials in Baltimore City to adequately educate our youngsters? I would say that across the board the answer is 'no.' "

"The bottom line is, no, there is not enough money."

* But not all complaints about shortages are valid. And the school system can make emergency appropriations to remedy the most severe shortages of textbooks, and to help upgrade school libraries.

* It's not necessary for every student to be able to take a textbook home every night.

* In addition to providing the tools of learning, the school system urgently needs new attitudes and approaches. "If I had to choose between having to focus on resources or focus on the attitude, I would focus on the attitude."

"I think that we probably have more supplies now and aren't doing as well."

"If the attitude's not right, you can keep throwing resources and money at the problem forever."

"I've got to deal with the attitude whether I can get the resources or not. I don't have any choice with the attitude."

Baltimore's not alone

* Other school systems suffer from shortages of library books. "Let me tell you something -- also in Baltimore County. Also in Baltimore County."

"As a matter of fact, I was pleasantly surprised at the shelves in our school libraries as I've seen them, compared with the ones in Baltimore County."

* City school libraries fall short of the state's minimum standards for research materials per pupil, but so does virtually every public school system in the state.

* As for the condition of school buildings, Baltimore does quite well. "I think there is some grime in some schools, but I think there are some schools that are very, very clean also."

"I have not seen grime and dirt in schools as being a big concern."

* The school system has a big backlog of repairs, but "that was exactly the same thing in Baltimore County. The exact same thing."

Violence in schools

* It's a very emotional issue, and the image is worse than the reality. "I find myself dealing with this an awful lot, where we have decided that the schools are unsafe. That our city is unsafe."

* There's no reason to panic. "We have tried to begin to foster the kind of thinking that would lead to a level of greater comfort with regard to how people feel in and around the schools. That's probably the closest thing to 'concrete' that we've done."

* Schools are safer than the public realizes. "In a sense, we have kind of accepted that it is dangerous, that it's not a good place, and that we find incidents -- and there are plenty of them that we can find -- that help to reinforce that belief and perception."

* Violence reinforces the negative feelings that some parents already have about the school system. "Something happens, which makes them change their thinking in a negative way, and then they say, 'Well, yes, I can find the money to put my kid in a private school.' "

"But I'm not so sure that there are people who, because of any incident that will happen tonight or tomorrow, will say, 'The schools are unsafe.' I think people have a general feeling about that right now, one way or the other."

Avoiding a "police state"

* The level of school violence does not require extreme measures such as metal detectors and allowing all school police officers to carry guns. "I am not going to . . . continue to foster this idea that we move closer and closer to this armed, separatist police state. We've got to bring ourselves to a sense of reality with regard to this."

* Filling vacancies on the school police force is not an urgent priority, and reports of understaffing are exaggerated. "I think that's some standard that someone has decided on that somehow escapes my office. I think that's one of those areas where we can paint the picture we want to paint."

* Every department in the school system must get by with less than it asks for, and the police force is no exception. "Take out the school police and put in any aspect of what you want, and I find myself always [providing] less that what the request has been. There's never enough."

Goal: no police force

* Ideally, the school system should have a goal of being able to abolish the school police force. "We kind of like to have a raison d'etre, and for school police officers, the problems help to justify their existence. But I would like to move toward a kind of climate of thinking where [a police force] wouldn't be necessary."

"Sometimes when I say that, people look at me as if I have two heads. But that's what I think school climate should be all about, not the presence of someone who is there for security."

* Parts of Baltimore County have demographics and social problems similar to the city's, but there are no school police officers in the county. "I spent 11 years in Woodlawn Senior High School, which for all intents and purposes has many of the characteristics of many of our [city] high schools. We never had any school police or even thought about having them."

...

"Far too many" arrests

* School principals and police officers must find ways of averting trouble before it erupts, rather than simply arresting and ejecting the troublemakers. "We arrest far too many kids for reasons that should not be reasons of arrest, and I have some concerns about that."

"We have got to do a better job of identifying the kinds of overt behavior of youngsters and how to defuse it."

* School police officers must develop human relations skills; law-enforcement expertise is not enough. "There needs to be more sensitivity training. It's my understanding that their workshops and in-service programs dealt with how to subdue people, how many days a kid could be out on suspension -- a lot of issues that I think are important in a . . . police academy."

"I want them to understand how to relate to people, how to be more preventive, how to understand more of the things teachers have to understand."

Dealing with troublemakers

* The school system needs to find new ways of handling problem children; shuttling them from school to school is no answer. "I think that we're living with a dearth of training in our school system, of teachers and particularly of school-based leaders.

"As a result of that, it has become very easy for us to say that youngsters who are disruptive -- or appear to be disruptive -- should be moved."

* Problem teachers also are shuttled around; It's difficult to fire them, and they never receive the kind of training that could turn them into effective instructors. "We never talk about training teachers. We never talk about the skill of working with people."

* Troubled students will not disappear, and the school system must inspire teachers to help these children.

Seizing the initiative

* Principals need not wait for the central administration to set up an innovative program for disruptive students. Example: the in-school suspension center, a concept used at some city schools and in other school districts.

Rather than send disruptive students home for several days, some schools put them into a separate class for a certain period of time, overseen by a teacher or aide. The students can keep up with their school work, while earning their way back to their regular classes.

* There's no reason why Baltimore schools can't start such centers on their own. "It's as simple as whether the mentality is, we put the kid out, send him somewhere, or do we find a way to work with this youngster?"

* A broader issue is: The public schools must take responsibility for their students, despite the burdens these children bear. "I'm saying to you that we have to accept ownership for our youngsters."

"As a city, I don't know that we accept ownership for our youngsters, particularly our black youngsters. I'm not sure we see them as citizens or future citizens. We see them as part of the 'problem' we have to address."

"We used to have the luxury of trying to decide if we wanted to do that from a moral point of view, whether it was the right thing to do. And we could be real paternalistic about these poor kids."

"Now, it's gone full circle. What was a moral issue is now an issue of survival. We're not going to have a future unless we see them differently."

New view of children

* Educators must stop living in the past and develop a new view of today's students.

"I become very concerned, and sometimes very angry, with our refusal to look at things differently."

* The schools must dig beneath the surface and "ask deeper questions . . . about why these youngsters behave the way they do when they're acting out, what it is they're trying to say."

"Are they really these 'hardened adults?' "

"What's going on with that kid at the corner of Calvert and North Avenue, who tonight will try to 'squeegee' my window, when he belongs in bed? How do you address that?"

* Many people criticize the behaviors that stem from social problems but "never really understand or take the time to figure out a way to turn that around. And that's what I'd like to focus on, for the most part, [and work toward] a different climate."

"I am very, very committed to education. It's what I've chosen to do with my life and I'm where I want to be because I'm doing it in the school system that educated me."

A CALL ON THE SUPERINTENDENT

In an interview with Sun reporters Mark Bomster, Suzanne Wooton and Mike Klingaman, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey was asked about the findings of the paper's four-month examination of Baltimore's school system.

The seven-part series ending today has shown that certain educational necessities are often in short supply:

* Books and other basic tools of learning.

* An atmosphere free of fear.

* Well-maintained, well-equipped buildings.

* Teachers who teach.

* Immediate help for pupils in distress.

Dr. Amprey, 47 years old, has been superintendent of the Baltimore public schools since August.

Born in the city, he graduated from Edmondson High School in 1962 and received a B.A. degree in history at Morgan State College in 1966.

He holds three advanced degrees: an M.S. in history and social science from Morgan, an M.S. in educational administration from the Johns Hopkins University, and a doctorate in education from Temple University.

Dr. Amprey taught at two schools in the city, Calverton Junior High and Walbrook Senior High, and also served as an administrator at Walbrook.

In 1973, he moved to the Baltimore County school system as assistant principal, and later principal, of Woodlawn High School. After that, he worked as a regional administrator and then moved up to associate superintendent, overseeing school facilities and staff.

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