Amprey a fervent convert to EAI Schools chief forges deep bound with dynamic company founder

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To Walter G. Amprey, John T. Golle is a visionary. To John Golle, Walter Amprey is a visionary.

Together, they have told each other repeatedly over the past three years, they would change the face of American education.

The superintendent of Baltimore's troubled schools and the salesman who says he can rescue them share both a philosophy and a friendship. "Some-times we think we were brought together by perhaps a higher being, and maybe it was meant to be," says Mr. Golle, the Min-nesota businessman whose company manages nine Baltimore schools.

When the privatization venture came under a barrage of criticism, the two men became allies in what Mr. Golle would liken to war. "We're winning!" the chief executive of Education Alternatives Inc. scrawled in a note to the superintendent last December.

Once a skeptic who regarded Mr. Golle as a "huckster," Dr. Amprey has become the most committed of converts. He's touted the "Tesseract Way" coast to coast and passionately defended it against detractors. But his dual roles -- EAI cheerleader and point man for city oversight -- have raised questions about his ability to make clear-eyed judgments about the project.

"Dr. Amprey has sacrificed his objectivity, and he's sacrificed his relationship with community organizations for the sake of EAI," said Carol Reckling, former president of Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, a church-based activist organization.

Dr. Amprey acknowledged the concerns: "There were questions about whether I was so enamored with the company, so tied up with this whole idea that . . . you see EAI, you see Walter Amprey; you see Walter Amprey, you see EAI, that we almost became one and the same."

But the superintendent insisted he did the right thing. Calling Tesseract - the word is from a children's book - nothing less than a "revolution," he described the "Catch-22" in which he found himself: "I believe in the concept and wouldn't have done it if I didn't believe in it. . . . My job as superintendent is to make it work, but because it's a public-private partnership, people also feel I ought to be more scrupulous, keep some distance from it."

Dr. Amprey said the EAI chief has offered him employment if he leaves Baltimore, "but he's not said it in any sense other than if I ever need a job. I just kind of let it go in one ear and out the other."

Never, he said, has he taken a favor. "I never allowed [EAI] to give me anything, and I won't."

Without an agenda

The friendship would have seemed unlikely four years ago, when Mr. Golle, the consummate salesman, began pitching his deal even before Dr. Amprey had cleaned out his desk in Baltimore County for the move to the city superintendent's suite.

"I thought to myself," Dr. Amprey remembered, "I'm probably going to get a lot of people like this, just hucksters in the marketplace. Of course, you've got to remember I was brand new -- and scared."

Dr. Amprey also thought then that school privatization was a "dumb idea. There's always another flavor of the month in education, always something else you're going to try, another gimmick that works for a while and then gets shelved."

The new superintendent was still adjusting to what he called "the numbness of the newness." He'd been surprised by his appointment. Only four of 15 civic organizations interviewing candidates for the school board that summer recommended Dr. Amprey, and Mayor Schmoke had urged the community groups' favorite, former state schools Superintendent David W. Hornbeck, to become a candidate.

But Dr. Hornbeck had alienated some school board members by insisting on a detailed nine-point reform program that included a clean sweep of top administrators at the system's North Avenue headquarters. By contrast, Dr. Amprey had no agenda; he announced he would study the district and develop "a long-range plan that the city itself and all of us together can put together and then follow."

Some board members found this attractive. And they saw attributes in Dr. Amprey that were missing in Dr. Hornbeck, now superintendent in Philadelphia. Dr. Amprey was a former teacher and principal, he was a native Baltimorean and he was black. Mr. Schmoke, in the midst of a tough re-election campaign, had been advised privately by a group of ministers that the new school chief had to be an African-American. In the end, the mayor acceded to the Amprey choice.

Once on the job, Dr. Amprey became sharply critical of the system he inherited. He admitted that the schools were failing. He complained of the "learned helplessness" and "organizational paralysis" afflicting city schools.

Frustrated by a school culture that seemed resigned to failure, Dr. Amprey became interested in the "Efficacy" philosophy conceived by Jeffrey Howard, a Harvard-educated social psychologist. It's based on the belief that all children are capable of succeeding academically; if they fail to do so, it's because society expects little of them.

"We see that children's abilities to learn are limitless," Dr. Amprey said. "But first, they must have the confidence to learn."

Dr. Amprey saw that philosophy in Tesseract, too. Mr. Golle offered an approach to education with a heavy dose of self-esteem building, desperately needed, Dr. Amprey said, in urban schools. Clean buildings and an abundance of technology were also pluses, but it was the Tesseract philosophy that "every child has gifts and talents" that he found compelling.

Moreover, Tesseract, with its private management, promised to achieve another of the superintendent's objectives: to "pierce" his own bureaucracy.

The campaign

The EAI pitch began during the administration of Dr. Amprey's predecessor, Richard C. Hunter. Dr. Hunter dispatched a team to Minneapolis in early spring 1991 to tour one of EAI's private schools. The team, which included members of the Baltimore Teachers Union, came back impressed. "All members agreed that we should consider replication in 4-5 Baltimore schools," wrote Charlene Cooper Boston, assistant superintendent for special projects.

(The Minneapolis trip and other early ventures for city educators were paid for by the Abell Foundation, whose president, Robert C. Embry Jr., had an early interest in Tesseract and still serves on its advisory board.)

Dr. Amprey said two school visits in late 1991 and early 1992 made him a Tesseract believer. On vacation in Scottsdale, Ariz., before Christmas 1991, he took a side trip to a private school operated by EAI in Paradise Valley, Ariz. There, he said, he saw privileged children -- including the sons and daughters of millionaire Phoenix Suns basketball players -- in the Tesseract program.

He said he saw the key elements of Tesseract. "Golly day, I saw how devoted the principal and staff were to the natural way in which children learn. The principal said the children in private schools face the same kinds of learning challenges as those who come from poor families."

Then the superintendent and other city educators flew to Miami Beach to tour the lone public school managed by EAI, South Pointe Elementary, in one of the city's poor neighborhoods. "That's where I learned that Tesseract works for poor kids, too," he said.

Mr. Schmoke said he was originally enthusiastic about Tesseract.

"The program seemed consistent with where I thought the system was headed, which was site-based management and allowing experimentation at individual schools," the mayor said. He asked school board President Joseph Smith and Dr. Amprey to meet and "make a final decision." That took several months, however, while Mr. Golle kept up the hard sell:

To Dr. Amprey, Jan. 2, 1992: "The need in your city is so great and we're absolutely convinced we can make a meaningful impact on the quality of education. . . . I hope we have a chance to work together."

Three months later: "Walter, the rapidly approaching problem is that we'll soon be out of capacity to meet Baltimore's needs -- we must take districts on a first come, first serve basis. . . . I must encourage you if you think the district plans to act on our proposal yet this year to act promptly."

A day later, Dr. Amprey sent a handwritten note to his then-deputy, Patsy Baker Blackshear: "I want to make sure that we are not [underlined] holding things up."

But if EAI was approaching "capacity," it never demonstrated it; the company pursued numerous districts but didn't sign up a single public school until last winter, when it won a contract to manage all 32 schools in Hartford, Conn. Among those EAI dispatched to Hartford to praise its program: Walter Amprey.

Dr. Amprey had to sell Tesseract to his school board, which initially opposed the idea, and the Board of Estimates, controlled by Mayor Schmoke. According to school board member (now President) Phillip H. Farfel, Mr. Golle met privately with the board and showed a videotape of Tesseract in action at South Pointe. )) Dr. Amprey also did some lobbying, Dr. Farfel said, and the board "finally decided to move ahead with the contract."

"I was very skeptical at first," said Arnita Hicks McArthur, the board's vice president. "But in the end I was intrigued. I figured as long as we had the 90-day cancellation clause, we could get out of it if it proved disastrous. I thought we might learn something from the company. And we have."

"Questions about how much experience and what kind of a track record [EAI] had kept coming up on my watch," said Mr. Smith, who left the school board in February 1992. "Candidly, some of those questions didn't get answered while I was on the board."

A "letter of intent" was drafted by EAI in June, and in a "Dear Walter" note attached to it, Mr. Golle declared, "Working together, I truly believe we will change the way in which America educates all of its children."

The five-year EAI contract was pushed through the Board of Estimates on a 3-2 vote in July 1992 - only six weeks before the start of school. City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and the comptroller, Jacqueline F. McLean, voted against the pact.

The bonding

Their friendship developed, Dr. Amprey said, because as he formulated his philosophy for leading the 110,000-student city system, he realized how closely it jibed with the Tesseract theories expounded by Mr. Golle.

The two men, it turned out, had much in common. They were born eight months apart. (Mr. Golle is now 51, Dr. Amprey 50.) They had nearly identical ideas about educating city children. Both talked about "saving" children before it was too late, "before we lose them for good," as Dr. Amprey put it.

As a youth, the superintendent was a choirboy who spent much of his free time at the Methodist church near his West Baltimore home. He said he had to decide as a teen-ager whether to teach or preach; he said he made a narrow choice for the former.

Dr. Amprey's father struggled to support his family. At one point, he held four jobs, and when Walter was 7, Joseph L. Amprey Sr. moved his family from the Gilmor projects to a home on West Lanvale Street, where the elder Mr. Amprey still lives. Dr. Amprey's mother, Marian, died this spring.

"In retrospect, I didn't know how poor we were," Dr. Amprey said. "We never missed meals, and I learned a lot about parental involvement and respect, both of which are part of Tesseract. I also learned while growing up in segregated Baltimore that all children will learn if they have high expectations, and that's a part of Tesseract, too."

"I've always been driven by the fear of failure," said Dr. Amprey, who works 16-hour days and struggles with a weight problem. "That fear has been a big motivation for me. But many of the kids we have now, they know failure because they're living with failure all the time. They need to be motivated by hope."

John Golle, who grew up in a middle-class Chicago family, would seem never to have feared failure. The prototypical modern American entrepreneur, he's always on the run and never far from a cellular phone. One afternoon last month, he went through the entire check-in procedure at an airport while talking by phone to a Sun reporter. At the security checkpoint, he handed the phone to the attendant and said, "Don't hang it up."

Public schools, Mr. Golle said, failed his learning-disabled son. "He's a statistic on someone's chart right now; he's not a success story. Here's a child who was somewhat privileged, who lost his self-esteem and self-respect in the public schools. What happens when you do the same thing to impoverished children of color? . . . That's why I founded EAI. It's a mission."

EAI was the second business Mr. Golle started; the first, a sales training company, made him a millionaire before he sold it in his 40s. "I was retired," he said. "I was golfing, and I got a phone call one day from a guy who was trying to sell a division at Control Data." That transaction created EAI.

'We're winning!'

As criticism of the experiment mounted, the Golle-Amprey relationship developed something of a bunker mentality, with Mr. Golle often plotting strategy from Minneapolis.

In March 1993, for example, a dispute arose over the student head count in Tesseract schools. A higher count would mean more money for EAI.

Mr. Golle dictated a letter for Dr. Amprey to send, over the superintendent's signature, to Mr. Embry, president of the state Board of Education, which audits enrollments. It explained that a "system error" had led to an "undercount" of students.

During the summer of 1993, Mr. Golle sent Dr. Amprey a tape of a public radio program on Tesseract. "Hear first-hand of the true transformation [our kids] are experiencing day in and day out," he wrote. "What a thrill to know that together we have forever enriched the lives of 5,000 children and brought hope to those who had little before our arrival."

During the same summer, Mr. Golle proposed adding 11 schools to Tesseract, including all the elementary schools feeding Harlem Park Middle.

He told the mayor he and Dr. Amprey had "conceived a strategy to counter" opposition to expansion from Mrs. Clarke and other EAI detractors. Citing "financial considerations," however, Mr. Schmoke rejected the idea.

The EAI chief would fire off short notes to Dr. Amprey, urging him on or commenting on news reports. "In case you haven't seen the editorial in today's Wall Street Journal, I've included it," Mr. Golle wrote in late 1993. "My guess is that history will recognize your personal role in how America turned around its failing public education system."

But in 1994, as test scores the second year of the experiment showed little gain, the teacher unions intensified their attacks, some civic leaders -- such as the Abell Foundation's Mr. Embry -- became skeptical and several politicians joined the chorus. Mr. Golle and Dr. Amprey became more defensive.

"We're winning!" Mr. Golle scrawled over a photocopy of a favorable editorial in the Hartford Courant shortly after Dr. Amprey traveled there at company expense to testify for EAI.

At one point, EAI and the school system jointly launched a public relations campaign designed to present Tesseract in the best possible light. The plan, devised by a Washington-based public relations firm, listed a detailed strategy, including contacts with community leaders and letters to the editor.

By last winter, Dr. Amprey was characterizing the criticism as "distortions and lies."

"While I'm superintendent, we will not sleep through this revolution," he declared.

Too close

Inevitably, Dr. Amprey was accused of being too close to EAI and Mr. Golle, especially after it was revealed that EAI had paid $5,700 to send the superintendent on cheerleading missions to Napa Valley, Calif., and Hartford early last year, and that he had testified in behalf of Tesseract before a congressional committee.

According to records obtained by The Sun, Dr. Amprey visited Hartford two weeks after the company won a contract to manage all 32 schools there. EAI paid for the trip and charged it to the company's new account with Hartford.

Typical of the criticism was that of Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a foe of Tesseract since its inception: "If you heard the superintendent at a public meeting, you'd swear he was a salesman for EAI instead of the person who is supposed to be watching the store."

Dr. Amprey begged to differ. "I guess I saw John Golle as EAI and as Tesseract," he said recently, "so I guess I've always kind of expected him to hold true to his promise and his word to me. He's never let me down. He's always come through.

"If we had budget difficulties, I'd say, 'John, I need for you guys to take less or to back off.' He'd always say, 'Well, OK, that's fine.'"

Dr. Amprey said a few of his friends and associates warned him he was getting too close. "They were trying to protect me. I think they felt I was hardheaded, wouldn't listen, that I just had stars in my eyes, chasing behind this company."

Mayor Schmoke warned him, too. "I knew what was happening to him because it happened to me," Mr. Schmoke said. In 1988, when the mayor suggested decriminalization of some drugs as part of a national drug policy, "it seemed that every time somebody said 'decriminalization,' Schmoke appeared, and people got the impression I was spending too much time on that one issue. I had to back off.

"Walter and I talked about that, and about the allegations that he or his family had stock in the company, and we tried to do as much as we could to dispel that rumor."

Dr. Amprey denied rumors that he had purchased or been given stock in EAI. (In June 1993, Mr. Embry warned both the mayor and the superintendent in writing not to invest in EAI or "any company doing business or considering doing business in the city.")

If Dr. Amprey was unapologetic about his closeness to Mr. Golle, the feeling was mutual. "Look for another urban district that has made the gains of Baltimore," the EAI chief said. "I don't know of one. . . . Hundreds of people are coming here from around the world to see this program. Walter is a visionary. He sees things others don't see. Yes, we've been under attack, but that's brought us even closer."

No matter what happens now, Tesseract has put Baltimore on the map. Dozens of journalists have been through the Tesseract schools -- so many that the principals had to limit visits. Hillary Rodham Clinton dropped by. So did Washington Mayor Marion Barry, a number of school boards, a string of curious educators and a couple of education researchers. Last Wednesday, Eric Forth, Britain's minister of education, came to Harlem Park Middle School by limousine.

All the attention appears to have helped Dr. Amprey. He's been on short lists for big-city superintendencies in Philadelphia and New York. Last June, not long after the New York interest became known, the superintendent was awarded a 12 percent raise to $140,000, one year before his contract with the city was to expire.

Would he consider a job with EAI? "I'm starting to feel a bit of a twitch," he said, "but I don't want you to read that as anything other than me wanting a challenge down the road. I'm not looking for a job. I have a lot of work to do for these kids."

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