In the quest for an antidote to the problems of America's urban schools, there are those who believe the solution lies in reform anchored to an educational model -- theories of effective learning that are buttressed by carefully orchestrated programs.
Walter G. Amprey is not one of them.
Baltimore County's associate school superintendent for staff and community relations, Dr. Amprey has a simpler solution: vibrant, persuasive leadership.
"I think the spirit and attitude of the top leader pervades the body politic no matter what it is," said the 46-year-old, 6-foot-4-inch educator. "And I think that, No. 1, there has to be a positive, clear vision coming from the top leader. And that has to display itself as hope. And from that comes an analysis of what to do."
That's not to say Dr. Amprey dismisses educational plans and models. Baltimore's plan for reform, for example, is built around decentralization of schools -- so-called school-based management. It is something Dr. Amprey said he espouses "as much as possible."
But in Dr. Amprey's view, what ultimately makes a school system work is the philosophy and charisma of its leader. Dr. Amprey's 18-year career in Baltimore County has thrived, in part, on the force of his personality.
"He has that charisma," said Stephen C. Jones, coordinator of the county minority education office, who has known Dr. Amprey for nearly a decade and was his assistant principal at Woodlawn Senior High school.
"He's much older than his years, and I think his calling really should have been a Baptist minister," Mr. Jones said. "He has the ability to get you excited and get you really stirred inside to make changes."
Baltimore-born and raised, a graduate of Edmondson High School, Walter G. Amprey in fact considered being a minister. "All I ever wanted to do was preach or teach," he said. He chose education, teaching social studies for five years at Calverton Junior High and Walbrook Senior High before becoming Walbrook's school administrator.
That was the job he left in 1973, when he went to Baltimore County to become assistant principal and then principal at Woodlawn High. He and his wife, Fran McCabe, live in Randallstown. Their daughter Keli Louise attends Old Court Middle School.
At Woodlawn, he was not a principal that students ignored.
Baltimore County's school superintendent, Robert Y. Dubel, remembers how Dr. Amprey once caught up with a Woodlawn youngster who had come to school with drugs.
When the principal approached, the youngster ran off into the bushes behind the school. Dr. Amprey commandeered another student's motorcycle and rode in pursuit.
"I think Dr. Amprey should seriously be considered by any school system in the country, with his track record and background," Dr. Dubel said. "I'm trying to keep him."
After six years as principal of Woodlawn, Dr. Amprey rose steadily in administration. He is now one of four associate superintendents who form the third tier of management in PTC county schools, after Dr. Dubel and his deputy superintendent.
Dr. Amprey expected to remain in Baltimore County, perhaps applying to succeed Dr. Dubel -- whose contract expires in a year. But Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke spoke with him this year about seeking the Baltimore post, and Dr. Amprey became a candidate without ever applying.
It was a mark of his continuing connection with the city, where he has friendships and professional and fraternal associations, that his name was mentioned to Mayor Schmoke. Those connections could give him a foundation on which to build if he becomes superintendent -- a factor that is important to the mayor and school board.
"It helps to know Baltimoreans," Dr. Amprey said. "It just does. I'm a Baltimore kid. I know the players and the players know me, and the players that don't know me know about me, because I've been here all my life."
But his status as a candidate was one he greeted at first with ambivalence. He was concerned about Superintendent Richard C. Hunter's brief tenure and the previous superintendent's abrupt retirement.
In addition, he said, "The city, being a city, is very bureaucratic, very involved. Everything is very complicated. Much of what you do is subject to misinterpretation. . . Any person who has two brain cells would have to wonder, is it possible to be effective there?"
Dr. Amprey came to the conclusion that it is.
It would be "the challenge of a lifetime for me," he said. "I know I could do it."