J. Edward "Ed" Andrews -- deputy superintendent of Baltimore schools -- saw some of the best that public education had to offer during his years as superintendent of schools in Montgomery County.
Now he's seen city schools from the inside out and his assessment is candid and sympathetic.
"We've got kids coming to school who don't know their name," says Andrews, the dynamic second-in-command at the city's 110,000-student public school system. "All they know is their nickname -- 'My name's Buzzy.'
"We've got a kindergarten class where the average age of the mothers, the average age of kindergarten mothers, is 21.
"Think about that. You talk about kids who have 2 1/2 strikes against them, and then this damn country wonders why it doesn't work.
"We can make it work," Andrews insists. "If we had that extra $50,000 per classroom these suburban systems have, we could be successful."
It's a massive challenge, he says.
But the 55-year-old Andrews, as his many admirers and a few detractors will tell you, is no quitter.
In the early 1980s, he tangled with his own school board in Montgomery County over its opposition to a controversial school desegregation plan -- and prevailed when the state Board of Education backed him up.
And, in his first months as deputy superintendent in Baltimore, Andrews has gained a reputation for shaking up a complacent school bureaucracy.
Over the summer, for instance, he grilled each of the system's 177 principals about their plans for the coming year and ruffled a few feathers.
Before the first day of school, he put administrators on notice that they would be held strictly accountable for any opening-day snags.
The result: one of the smoothest openings in recent years, with no hint of the textbook shortages that marred last year's start.
Andrews has gained a reputation for hands-on management that wins praise even from the principals' and teachers' unions.
"If you send a memo to someone and happen to [send a] copy [to] him, he will pick up the phone to you," says Sheila Z. Kolman, president of the principals' group. "The man appears to be an everlasting fountain of energy."
"He will return your phone calls," says Irene Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union. "He will advise you as to what he can or cannot do, or refer you to the right person."
An employee of Montgomery County schools since 1957, Andrews retired as superintendent in 1983 and took a position at the University of Maryland at College Park.
In 1988, he served as a consultant on the transition team working with Baltimore's school superintendent, Richard C. Hunter.
The city had been without a deputy superintendent since the 1970s. But Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, impatient with Hunter's day-to-day management of the system, decided that Hunter needed a deputy.
Hunter himself chose Andrews, who initially declined. But Andrews relented after being nudged, at Schmoke's suggestion William E. Kirwan, president of the University of Maryland at College Park. Because he is retired from Montgomery County, however, Andrews could not take a permanent job with another unit in the state retirement system. So he agreed to a temporary appointment that is up in June.
Andrews is, in effect, chief operating officer of a corporation with some 11,000 employees and 180 operating locations.
Previously, Hunter's job included day-to-day operations, along with the ceremonial and political duties of a superintendent.
"And it wasn't working," says Andrews, who stresses that he had a deputy in Montgomery, as does the superintendent in Baltimore County. "You need at least two people looking at the whole system."
But he is quick to dismiss rumors he is the power behind the throne.
"No place can operate like that -- I made it clear to the mayor, and Richard knew this all along," he says.
"I know there's a bunch of talk about, 'Oh there's going to be a closet superintendent,' and all that kind of thing. Baloney!" he declares. "There's plenty for both of us to do."
When his contract is up next year, "my plans are to go back to my ivory tower," Andrews says.
In the meantime, "I've had to shake up some things. That's part of my job." Case in point: the one-on-one planning interviews with every principal in the system.
Principals were asked to analyze their own schools and problems there, and discuss an improvement plan.
"I wanted to sit eyeball-to-eyeball with every principal in this school system and say, 'Here's what we've agreed you're going to do, this is how we're going to measure it -- and here's what we're going to hold you accountable for next year.'
"And that's how you start to move a school system. Because people know they're going to be looked at. They know what's expected."
Andrews is aware of complaints that increased school funding would be wasted in Baltimore because the schools simply aren't accountable.
Yet he argues that Baltimore simply can't do as well as suburban districts without at least the same amount of money.
"I mean, we're not magicians, we're not Houdinis," says Andrews. "I can't turn this system into a Montgomery County. . . . Money doesn't answer all the questions, but you do get what you pay for."
But there are things that can be done in the meantime, he says.
For one, the administration can stay in close touch with individual schools. Principals also can be given more authority. And Andrews praises a pilot program granting local schools more operating freedom.
Some efforts already are paying off, he asserts.
Administrators say that schools are safer now, due to a tough new focus on security and that staff morale is up.