Amprey's first year closes with praise, higher expectations Observers seeking performance gains from city's schools


After one year as school superintendent, Dr. Walter G. Amprey gets good grades for leadership and political savvy but an "incomplete" in classroom-level results.

That's the consensus of a dozen community leaders asked by The Sun to evaluate Dr. Amprey's performance since last August in the $125,000-a-year post. The report card says:

* The Baltimore superintendent established his authority but now must produce actual gains in the coming school year.

* He displayed zeal and tenacity as head of the state's most troubled school system, perceived as adrift and sinking when he took over.

* Dr. Amprey showed a lion tamer's willingness to tackle school reform and to tangle with the stubborn beast of the bureaucracy.

* His political and public-relations skills were evident during several crises, in sharp contrast to the ivory tower approach of his predecessor, Dr. Richard C. Hunter.

* Dr. Amprey is tough, forceful and sure of where the system must go. But he's often unspecific about how to get there.

"He came in like gangbusters," says Irene B. Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, who clashed with Dr. Amprey on several issues. "Leadership in the school system was very badly needed, and that's what we've got, leadership -- for good or ill."

Others agree that the superintendent has charisma.

"There seems to be an enthusiasm, an energy that we really haven't seen for a while," says Tru Ginsburg, president of the Maryland Education Coalition, a lobby group for public schools. "It seems to give you some hope that things are different."

Now comes the hard part: turning inspirational talk into higher test scores, better attendance and a leaner, more responsive bureaucracy.

And the city that gave Dr. Amprey an extended honeymoon is growing hungry for results.

"A tough year"

"This is going to be a tough year with him, because people's expectations are going to be real high," says City Councilman Carl B. Stokes, D-2nd, who chairs the council's education and human resources committee.

"People want to see some . . . achievement," Mr. Stokes says.

State Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs an education subcommittee in Annapolis, says, "Dr. Amprey says all the right things." But, she adds, "I'm at the point where I want to see" what he does.

None of that is lost on Dr. Amprey, a man with an abundance of self-confidence that some say borders on arrogance.

"I do think the city is poised and ready for change, and anticipating positive change," he says. "Those expectations also include greater expectations of me as a superintendent."

Dr. Amprey was a long-shot choice to head the school system, which has 110,000 pupils.

A Baltimore native and graduate of city schools, he was a well-regarded administrator in Baltimore County before starting his new job Aug. 1 of last year.

He had never headed a school system before; he earned his administrative stripes as a principal and then as an area and associate superintendent in the county.

He was chosen over a nationally-known candidate for the job, former state school Superintendent David W. Hornbeck, who had powerful champions in the city.

In picking Dr. Amprey, the school board seemed to hedge its bet, choosing two of the runner-up candidates, Dr. Patsy Blackshear and Dr. Lillian Gonzalez, as his two deputies.

Testing started quickly

And when school opened, Dr. Amprey soon found himself tested by the crisis-a-day pace of life in an urban school system.

In October, he was forced to deal with unexpected budget cuts, made necessary by reductions in state aid to the city.

In November, he was put on the defensive by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's decision, later reversed, to shut the schools for a week during the winter to save money.

Later that same month, he moved to deal with school-related violence -- only to have the issue explode again in February, when a student shot a school police officer at Roland Park Elementary-Middle School.

Through it all, Dr. Amprey seemed to give the school system something it had sorely lacked in recent years: vigorous leadership.

"One of the issues was to re-establish some measure of confidence in the senior administration, and he's done that," says Robert Keller, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Mr. Keller and others note that Dr. Amprey forged a good working relationship with his two deputies, allaying fears that the "troika" would degenerate into in-fighting and paralysis.

And the superintendent moved aggressively on a number of fundamental reforms, says Mr. Keller.

Chief among them was the decision to turn nine public schools over to Education Alternatives Inc., starting in September.

EAI is a Minneapolis company with its own custom-designed educational program.

That decision came under fire from some parents and community groups who said they weren't consulted in advance. They also questioned the wisdom of putting public schools in the hands of a for-profit firm.

Courage for change

But Dr. Amprey's boldness convinced many people that he has the political courage to make radical changes.

"This is something no school system in the country is willing to do," says Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the state school board and former head of the city board. "He has stood up to the expected opposition."

And Mr. Embry says that Dr. Amprey has been open to advice from the business community and other outside groups.

As for improvements in test scores and other measurements of achievement, Mr. Embry says the coming school year is a truer yardstick than the last one. "It would be amazing if, coming in August, he had any impact on the performance of children" during the 1991-1992 school year, Mr. Embry says.

Principals, meanwhile, have received a greater measure of authority under Dr. Amprey, says Sheila Kolman, principal of West Baltimore Middle School and president of the local Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association.

She notes that the superintendent slashed a layer of bureaucrats separating him from the principals, and gave principals more control over their own budgets.

He also divided the school system into six regions starting this fall, a move intended to put administrators closer to the schools they oversee.

"He has put the leadership responsibilities on the principals in the schools. He is making us accountable," says Ms. Kolman.

That's not to suggest that principals haven't sometimes crossed swords with the superintendent.

"He is a stubborn man," says Ms. Kolman. But she adds, "his tenacity should lead us to change."

Nowhere has that stubbornness been more in evidence than in his support of EAI, a proposal brought forward by the mayor.

The superintendent sometimes pushes ahead without fully including the public, says Carol D. Reckling, who works on education issues for Baltimoreans United In Leadership

Development, a civic and lobby group with clout at City Hall.

"Dr. Amprey is a very likable, positive superintendent, which was a breath of fresh air to many people," she says. But, she adds, "he believes that he can bring change on his own, by willing it."

She gives Dr. Amprey credit for taking on the bureaucracy, and praises his stated commitment to local control for the schools. But BUILD is still waiting for results.

"Some parents disappointed"

So are parent-teacher organizations. "There are some parents who are disappointed with the job he has done," says Robert L. Wilson, president of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs, and generally a supporter of the superintendent.

Mr. Wilson cites the EAI proposal as one letdown. Another is Dr. Amprey's decision to name a white, former state education official as head of curriculum and instruction in the predominantly black school system.

But others hail that controversial appointment as evidence of strong leadership and a refusal to use a racial litmus test.

Even Dr. Amprey's admirers say that rhetoric must give way to specific achievements in the coming school year.

"First you have to shift the momentum and the direction of the schools and the administration," says Jerry Baum, executive director of the Fund for Educational Excellence, a non-profit group that works closely with the schools. "I think he's done that in his first year."

In the coming year, says Mr. Baum, "the public is going to be looking for results."

Dr. Amprey agrees, but believes that his administration is off to a strong start.

"I've earned an 'A' "

"I think I've earned an 'A'," he says of his first year. "The high level of commitment and determination, and selflessness to making a difference is off the chart. I don't think I've really failed at anything."

There were a few personal disappointments, including the time it took to put his own staff and administrative changes in place.

"In the beginning, I did not move very, very quickly, because I wasn't sure what the moves would mean," he says. "I've always felt a sense of urgency."

And he recognizes some bruised feelings in the community. "I would like to have won more people over more quickly."

But he makes no apologies for his actions, particularly the move to privatize some of the city's public schools. Though some groups may have been miffed at the way that decision was made, "we've got to decide as a school system on what's best for kids."he said

And Dr. Amprey serves notice that the coming school year will see massive, rapid change.

He vows to speed the shift of power from school headquarters to the individual schools.

He says that more schools could be privatized or turned over to local colleges and universities, if the EAI experiment is successful.

He warns that principals who fail to satisfy him may find themselves replaced before year's end.

And he expects to see definite improvements in attendance, parental involvement, standardized test scores and other traditional indicators of school quality.

"You're going to see people held accountable," says Dr. Amprey. "If we're experiencing failure . . . then we need to make the corrections as soon as possible."

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