Amprey sees a need for urgent change


December 15, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Dr. Walter Amprey apologizes for running a little late, but things are getting crazy in his schools once again.

This time, it's the clubbing of a student at William H. Lemmel Middle School.

Later in the day, it'll be an attack on a teacher at Booker T. Washington Middle School.

A week ago, it was a fight that hospitalized a kid at Lombard Middle School.

And 13 students hurt in a stampede at Herring Run Middle School.

And a day of disruption that cost a principal her job at Hampstead Hill Middle School.

"I love this job," Amprey, superintendent of Baltimore public schools, says between telephone calls and visits to the various battle sites. "It's killing me, but I love it."

At Lemmel Middle School, a 15-year-old has been confronted by three non-students. One had a gun and a police nightstick and clubbed the student in the back of the head. School police, assistant principals and teachers intervened. The attackers ran off. The kid lay on the ground with a gash in the back of his head while the news began to work its way back to city school headquarters.

"A gun and a club," Amprey says. "Young black males."

He settles his large frame into a chair in his North Avenue office and shakes his head sadly.

"It's epidemic," he says in a soft voice. "This violence of young black males, we've got to get on top of it. All the anger of rap music, this violence is the way they display it, it's the way they display their existence."

He pauses and then mutters again, almost under his breath, "Young black males."

"Could you say this," he is asked, "if you were white?"

"I don't know," he says. "I'd like to think I could, but I don't know."

He's a man in a very hot seat, heading a system that is now more than 80 percent black in a city that's maybe 55 percent black, where the crime rate is high and the impulse among people with any money -- black or white -- is to find some place to live where the problems don't seem so unrelenting.

It's a school system where the dropout rate is 8 percent a year (vs. 2.5 percent in Baltimore County), where the funding is $1,500 less per student than in Baltimore County, where only 35 percent of the graduates go on to higher education (vs. 50 percent in Baltimore County), where the average high school student scores a combined 754 out of a possible 1,600 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test -- or about 160 points lower than the average student statewide.

It's also a system where social problems come home to roost, including one of the highest teen-age pregnancy rates in the country, numbing poverty, a breakdown of traditional family structure and a sense of hopelessness that is now handed down from one generation to the next like an unfortunate heirloom.

To a lot of people, it looks like a school system on a 25-year slide not entirely of its own making.

"I know," Amprey says. "Folks say to me, 'Walter, change the schools.' I hear it all the time. People say, lengthen the school year, or lengthen the school day, or go to some Asian method. This state of panic has set in."

Whatever panic Amprey feels is hidden behind a cover of calm, a veil of soft-spoken reasonableness. He's a product of this school system, a 1962 graduate of Edmondson High -- but he makes a point of not mistaking today for yesterday.

"So much of what we believe about schools has to do with what we had growing up," he says. "I was motivated by fear of failure. These kids today already know failure, they live with it, they see it all over the place.

"You know, I love these talk shows. People say, blame the parents for the kids' problems. Do they know who the parent is? The parent's a victim. It's this underclass, which has been controlled by life, and we're holding them responsible."

It's not that the parents shouldn't be responsible for their kids; that's not the issue. In an ideal world, of course, they should be held responsible.

"The problem," says Amprey, "is that the parents are concerned with their immediate needs: a man, a bottle, a drug. That's the track we're on. And it didn't happen overnight, but it's urgent that we change it overnight.

"It's not enough to cast blame. Those of us with better lives," who think moving to the suburbs can create distance from the city's problems, "don't understand. You can't wall up everything."

He pauses to take a phone call: Things are calm at Lemmel. He can feel a momentary sense of relief. The news hasn't arrived yet from Booker T. Washington, where several students will be accused of attacking a teacher escorting them from the cafeteria to a classroom. Order will be restored only when a second teacher pulls the students away and they are sent overnight to a youth center in Laurel.

"Things are OK at Lemmel," Amprey says, putting down the telephone. "That's what I was talking about, that acting out. 'Taking somebody out,' that's the thing. 'Gonna take him out.' It's this general air of cynicism that pervades, which they think is OK.

"That's the climate today. We have to change it. We have to change the minds of principals, who are still more concerned about keeping floors polished than about after-school recreation programs. We have to change this bitterness that the kids have. And the low self-esteem of the whole city, which is unbelievable.

"It's been a 20-year slide," Amprey says, "and we can't take that long going back."

It's good to hear this kind of talk. It's invigorating to hear this positive attitude. But it's also sobering when, minutes later, the news arrives from the fighting at Booker T. Washington.

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