Amprey's Gospel of High Expectations


Now is the time for all good Baltimoreans to rally behind the city's embattled school superintendent, Walter G. Amprey.

He's besieged by the forces of resistance to meaningful educational reform. The city teachers' union blasts his bold experiment in school privatization and calls for his resignation. City Council President Mary Pat Clarke castigates him and his programs as a part of her campaign strategy to unseat Mayor Schmoke. Bureaucratic drones frustrate reforms which would jeopardize their sacred perquisites and unnecessary jobs in North Avenue's bloated city school headquarters. School principals worry about his plans to replace 40 of them next year.

Some of the reforms don't work. Others have unanticipated consequences. Most of them require adjustment.

Meanwhile, however, change has threatened people. The well-intentioned lose faith. The faint-hearted abandon ship. Ambitious political opponents jump on the inevitable mistakes. Newspapers report the growing controversies.

All of these things happen at a reformer's most vulnerable point -- before his new programs have had a chance to show what

they can do.

That's the point at which Dr. Amprey finds himself this summer. Most of his new programs are under way. But so far, the results have been disappointing.

His most controversial innovation hasn't yet proved itself. Elementary students' test scores have shown no significant improvement at the schools run by the for-profit Education Alternatives Inc. for the last two years. Indeed, city-wide, there has been little measurable progress in student performance, attendance or drop-out rates since Dr. Amprey took over three years ago.

Three years. This is exactly the point at which most big-city public-school superintendents either quit or lose their jobs.

Fortunately for Baltimore and its children, this guy won't quit, and Mayor Schmoke isn't about to give up on him. The man brings enormous strengths to the prodigious task of reversing the long and devastating decline of this city's schools.

Dr. Amprey is dedicated, even devoted, to this thankless task. He grew up and taught in the city schools himself, and he feels leading the system is his life's calling. He brings courage and strength to that sense of mission. He has repeatedly stood up to the unions. He hasn't succumbed to the old-boy network or to racial politics, both of which have bedeviled and distorted teacher transfers and principal appointments in the past.

He's open to new ideas suggested by others, even people outside the system and outside his own circle of advisers. For example, he's recruited teachers from non-traditional sources such as retiring military personnel, people changing careers, and the "Teach for America" program. He's supported the Stadium Schooland the tutoring program run by the Sylvan Learning Centers.

He seems to have no pride of authorship, he doesn't demagogue, and he accepts responsibility. Aside from his personal warmth, this last quality is perhaps his most attractive trait, and it's surely his most impressive one. He doesn't make excuses for himself or, more important, for his school system.

Take the question of school funding. Baltimore has substantially less money with which to educate children who suffer significantly greater disadvantages than students in Maryland's affluent suburban counties.

Dr. Amprey knows that equitable school funding is an essential component to ultimate educational success in the city. But he has never wasted time wailing about how unfair and inadequate his funding is. Instead, his attitude has been that, for now, Baltimore gets what it gets, and in the meantime the school system must use its existing appropriations more effectively. For him, inadequate money is simply no excuse for poor performance.

There have been some odd lapses. For some reason he seems to ignore the exciting success of the Calvert curriculum at the Barclay School and the achievements of Johns Hopkins' Success for All program. Uncharacteristically, he was timid in not bucking the unions to allow EAI to select its own principals and staff in the schools they now manage.

His most serious mistake, however, has been to identify himself too closely with EAI. He seems to have committed himself to that one particular company and to have staked his credibility on the success or failure of that one particular program. As a result he has deprived himself of the advantages he would enjoy if he would instead commit himself solely to the process of opening up the school system to a whole host of new ideas and new programs.

EAI is actually only one part of Baltimore's much bigger and bolder experiment in urban public education. The concept is not to bet everything on one program but to test simultaneously a variety of different approaches. Privatization. For-profit companies. Non-profit organizations. Colleges and universities. Other secondary schools. Charter schools. New ways of running schools within the system. School-based management.

The superintendent should stand back. Objectively evaluate and assess every program. Figure out which ideas are working and )) which aren't. Replicate the best and cut the bad. No one knows for sure what will work in big-city public schools. So innovate, experiment, test, make adjustments, and try again.

Dr. Amprey is the right man to run that risky process. Everywhere he goes he preaches the gospel of creating a climate of high expectations for Baltimore's students. If he pulls back a little from EAI, bets the future on the broader process of opening up the entire school system, and keeps encouraging people who have bold new ideas, then he can lead the city schools into an era of dramatic improvement. But to do that, he's going to need a lot more public support than he's been getting lately.

Tim Baker is a lawyer who writes from Columbia.

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