New superintendent believes in listening Co-workers call Amprey's style participatory.

July 01, 1991|By Mark Bomster

At a news conference last month, the man who ultimately would be picked to be Baltimore's new school chief was pressed to give a detailed blueprint for fixing the city schools.

Walter G. Amprey, currently associate superintendent in Baltimore County, demurred.

"There are some people," he said, "who have made a career about having the answers even before the questions are asked."

RF Long on inspiration and purposely short on specifics in his public

comments, Amprey nonetheless struck a chord with the Baltimore school board, which picked him from a strong field of contenders.

Impressed by several candidates, the board on Friday tapped Amprey to head a team of two deputies, both runners-up for the superintendency.

If all goes according to plan, Patsy Baker Blackshear, an associate superintendent in Baltimore, and Lillian Gonzalez, an assistant superintendent from Washington, D.C., will serve as chief lieutenants to the new school chief.

Blackshear has accepted, said Joseph Lee Smith, school board president. Gonzalez, who is in California until next week, told Smith she is "favorably disposed" but has not formally accepted, Smith said.

Amprey himself gave Smith the go-ahead to approach Blackshear and Gonzalez about sharing the No. 2 spot in Baltimore's 108,000-student school system.

The appointments have drawn measured support from school unions, the business community and parent groups.

The team leader, Amprey, is a 46-year-old Baltimore public school graduate who takes over a system that has languished in a leadership vacuum for at least half a year.

His predecessor, Richard C. Hunter, became a lame duck in December when the school board decided not to renew his contract, at the insistence of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Amprey comes aboard at a crucial time for Baltimore's schools, which suffer from all the social and academic ills of urban school systems around the country.

The administration is under orders from City Hall to give local schools more autonomy, starting with a 14-school pilot program.

Amprey will oversee a complete, and potentially controversial, rewrite of the school curriculum to add aspects of African and African-American history and culture.

And he will be expected to lobby hard to get more money for a system that ranks among the state's lowest in per-pupil spending.

What sort of leader has the school board picked for that job?

According to Baltimore County educators interviewed when Ampreyfirst joined the race, he has a cooperative management style that draws strongly on those below him.

"I would say it's participatory," said Joan L. Powell, principal of Loch Raven High School in Baltimore County. "He certainly has no problem making hard calls and decisions, but he involved his management in decision-making."

As principal of Woodlawn High School, for example, Amprey formed an administrative council of department heads within the school -- and listened closely to its suggestions.

"He had . . . a lot of respect for the thoughts and ideas of individual teachers," said Evelyn J. Chatmon, an assistant superintendent in Baltimore County at the time when Amprey was principal. Baltimore's push for autonomy in the local schools "would fit Walter's style very well," she said.

Stephen C. Jones, the county's coordinator of minority education, credits Amprey with a methodical decision-making style.

"He's a very reasoned person in terms of his ability to size up a situation, but not shoot quick from the hip," said Jones.

Amprey also gets high marks from the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, which sat across from Amprey in the 1985-86 contract talks.

"I find him very easy to work with," said Don Kopp, assistant executive director and union negotiator.

"I always had the impression that he heard what we were saying and gave it a fair consideration."

Amprey sounded many of those themes in a lengthy interview when he became a front-runner earlier this year.

His first priority as superintendent, he said, would be "to change the perception of the system."

"I think Baltimore City is not as bad as it is portrayed from within or from without," said Amprey. He would invite people "to start to look at what's right with the city's school system."

Amprey stressed the need to listen to principals and school staff, and to make members of the community feel that they have a right to have their ideas heard.

He supported school-based decision-making -- the heart of the so-called "restructuring" movement -- while saying there is nothing especially new in the concept.

"Administrators, teachers make on-the-spot decisions all the time," he said. "For too long, they have been doing that with the fear of some kind of retribution."

And since the superintendent sets the tone for the system, Amprey vowed to "exude a spirit of 'can-do' " if selected.

He keeps as his focal point the students who will be served -- and shaped -- by the schools.

"They only have one shot," he said.

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