School success proves elusive 'Education mayor' absorbs lessons in frustration THE SCHMOKE YEARS

August 11, 1991|By Gelareh Asayesh

It is a phenomenon of Kurt L. Schmoke's first term that all the troubles of the city school system -- from choices of superintendents to glitches in aid grants, from shortages of toilet paper to selection of walkie-talkies -- end up on the mayor's desk.

Even his detractors agree that Mr. Schmoke, having barged into the spotlight by making himself accountable for progress in the intractable arena of education, has not backed away.

But partly because of the potential people saw in Mr. Schmoke when he took office, his performance has disappointed many. Parents, teachers, politicians and education advocates are virtually unanimous in recognizing his dedication to change, but divided on his effectiveness in achieving it.

The mayor himself, in announcing in December that he had lost confidence in his hand-picked superintendent, Richard C. Hunter, cited a lack of "steady progress" in schools. For Mr. Schmoke as much as for anyone else, the past three years have been characterized by chafing frustration and a sense of lost opportunities.

Although there are pockets of progress in the school system and improvement in some areas, such as dropout rates or the computer-oriented "Writing to Read" program, consistent gains in academic achievement cannot be documented.

And educators privately acknowledge that the crisis in leadership at school headquarters on North Avenue generated a sense of drift that hurt the system's ability to move forward efficiently on major initiatives, such as a plan to give more power to schools.

A new superintendent, Walter G. Amprey, started work Aug. 1. The final verdict on the "education mayor" may hang on this second attempt to bring effective leadership to the school system.

The first attempt began with the recruitment of Dr. Hunter, the former superintendent of schools in Richmond, Va., and Dayton, Ohio, who brought with him a sense of anticipation and a determination to reorganize the school hierarchy.

But by 1989, Mr. Schmoke's renewal began to unravel as Dr. Hunter's administration was stung by a series of public embarrassments over bureaucratic breakdowns and missed opportunities.

First it was Barclay School -- the mayor had to order Dr. Hunter to resolve a controversy over an experimental curriculum parents wanted adopted. Next it was textbooks -- the mayor had to pay a surprise visit to the city textbook warehouse to publicly light a fire under administrators responsible for a distribution bottleneck. Then it was safety -- the mayor berated the superintendent for lack of concern when a television reporter walked unchallenged into five high schools in a report on school security.

Mr. Schmoke dismisses the notion that the choice of Dr. Hunter reflects badly on his judgment. "I remind some of my critics that in the community meeting aspect of that process, Hunter was the No. 1 choice of those outside the board who participated in the process," the mayor said.

For his part, Dr. Hunter says the mayor used him as a scapegoat to deflect blame for failing to achieve unrealistic election pledges. Dr. Hunter said last week that if he had failed, then so had the mayor.

Douglas N. Norwood, a history teacher at Western High School, believes that the superintendent did fail -- and that responsibility for this rests with the mayor. "Out of all things in education, his [Mr. Schmoke's] greatest failure was the person he chose to run the school system," Mr. Norwood said. "And it was his choice, there's no getting away from that."

Others are not so sure. "I think the failing was [Dr. Hunter] not being on the same sheet of music as the mayor," said Arnold J. Kleiner, head of the education committee of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "You can't point a finger at the mayor. The mayor has tried."

Whatever the perception, a mayor who started his term saying he intended to be "a promoter, not a meddler" in education ended it by creating a new role for himself.

When Dr. Hunter would not meet with principals, the mayor began to do so himself. Mr. Schmoke's office ignored school headquarters to orchestrate volunteer projects in places like Dunbar High.

When principals told the mayor they had poor campus security because their walkie-talkies were of incompatible designs, the mayor's office paid for new ones; when the community around Hampstead Hill Middle School erupted in May after a student allegedly participated in the beating of a young man, the mayor ** announced that the school's principal would be transferred.

"I probably would have been less involved in day-to-day matters," Mr. Schmoke acknowledges, "if I had the sense that the superintendent was himself very much involved in those issues."

When the search for a new superintendent opened in January, Mr. Schmoke made it clear that he would again play a key role.

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