Turning an urban school system "around" is like turning the Titanic around on a dime in 10 minutes: It simply can't be done in the space and time allowed. Certainly it can't be done in a year, so it's much too early to judge Walter G. Amprey after only a year as Baltimore school superintendent.
But Dr. Amprey has made himself fair game. He's given himself an "A," declaring, "I don't think I've really failed at anything." And he's issued his own written statement on Year 1. It reiterates his educational philosophy and says that "much has been done over the past year to make an entire school system ready for change."
So here's a report card on the first year of the city's 19th superintendency.
* System reorganization: F.
Like his seven predecessors since 1960, Dr. Amprey has felt it necessary to rearrange the deck chairs. The system was highly centralized in the '60s. The late Roland Patterson decentralized it in the early 1970s. His two immediate successors, John L. Crew and Alice G. Pinderhughes, recentralized it. Now Dr. Amprey is decentralizing again -- into six regions.
We hasten to add that this grade doesn't count in the final average. The reason is that the organizational chart is of little importance so long as the real power resides in the central office. There it is -- and has been for most of this century.
* Appointments: B+.
This, on the other hand, is important, for it is the quality of leadership that will turn this ship around. Dr. Amprey has two highly competent deputies. It took him too long to do it (as he himself admits), but he has cleaned out some dreadful mid-level bureaucrats left over from the failed regime of Richard Hunter. And Dr. Amprey has made excellent choices in school principalships. (One terrible blunder: He tried to move Evelyn Beasley, the respected principal of Roland Park Elementary and Middle School, a woman with immense political clout. Mayor Schmoke had to intervene to keep Ms. Beasley in place.)
* Guts: A.
Dr. Amprey approved the turning over of nine schools to a profit-making Minnesota firm, a firm with a resume as short as a baby's. That was gutsy enough. Then he went on the "Today" show and declared that the current way of doing things is failing the kids. Such admissions reflect on the efforts of colleagues, so superintendents usually don't make them in public.
Similarly, Dr. Amprey replaced the black female head of curriculum and instruction with a white male. He took considerable heat in public and private from those who believe that no white person should work in a vastly black school system.
* Willingness to include others in decision-making: D.
This man works close to the vest. His decentralization plan was implemented with no public hearings. Though the school "privatization" plan includes much rhetoric about parental involvement, so far parents have had little to say about it. When school starts next month, students at 45 secondary schools will be required to watch a daily TV newscast (including two minutes of commercials) on educational entrepreneur Chris Whittle's Channel One. Dr. Amprey was not superintendent when the contract was approved by the school board last summer, but the future consumers of Channel One, their parents and their teachers have never had a chance to discuss it.
* Diligence: A.
No superintendent in modern times has worked harder. Which brings us to . . .
* Leadership: A-/B+.
If reorganization is weighed not at all, this grade is counted twice. It is all-important because a good leader infects followers, who in turn become good leaders. Morale increases. Employees work harder and refrain from sabotage (a constant danger in a huge bureaucracy). "We feel better," says a top administrator about Dr. Amprey. "People are ignoring the fact that not much has happened."
Part of being a good leader is image and style. From his natty dress to his almost messianic approach to the job, Dr. Amprey nails home the image that he cares deeply and genuinely about the children in his charge. (The superintendent's failure to include others in decision-making costs him half a grade.)
* Overall grade: B, with potential for improvement. We'll grade the superintendent again in five years. This year and next -- and probably the year after that -- no big changes can be expected. Five years is a good timestick.
Mike Bowler is editor of The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.