Accountable principals

December 09, 1991

Baltimore city school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey took office pledging to move forward on reforms aimed at giving principals greater authority over the way their schools are run -- and making them more accountable for results.

Now Amprey has faced an early test of that doctrine in the case of Hampstead Hill Middle School Principal Margaret Wicks, whose staff apparently lost control of the situation last Thursday when a fight between two boys set off a mini-riot that disrupted classes for several hours at the East Baltimore school. Before the day ended, all the school's sixth-grade boys -- more than 100 students -- had been suspended and sent home.

Although it was unclear exactly who ordered the suspensions, ++ ultimately principals must be held responsible for what goes on in their schools. Last week's events at Hampstead demonstrated that Wicks simply was not up to the job. Amprey rightly criticized the suspension order as improper and urged parents of the suspended boys to return their children to school the next day. On Friday he met with parents and staff at the school and announced that Wicks would be reassigned to other duties.

Ironically, Hampstead Hill Middle School was still trying to recover from an episode last spring when a young neighborhood resident, Expedito "Pedro" Lupo, was severely beaten with a baseball bat in Patterson Park; one of the assailants was said to have been a Hampstead Hill student. In the aftermath of that incident, former Supt. Richard C. Hunter replaced Hampstead Hill Principal Preston Roney with Wicks. But Wicks apparently never managed to win the confidence of the school's staff, parents and students and reportedly spent much of her time holed up in her office behind closed doors. Obviously that was no way to coax a troubled institution back into a smooth-running operation.

In moving Wicks aside, Amprey showed that he can act forcefully. Let us hope that his decisiveness in this instance puts other principals on notice that ineffective managers will be held accountable. At the same time, however, the problems at Hampstead aren't going to go away overnight; only long-term stability and consistent leadership at all levels can bring that about. That will be the challenge facing Amprey and the entire Hampstead Hill school community in the weeks and months ahead.

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