Amprey's first year closes with praise, higher expectations Observers seeking performance gains from city's schools

August 02, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

After one year as school superintendent, Dr. Walter G. Amprey gets good grades for leadership and political savvy but an "incomplete" in classroom-level results.

That's the consensus of a dozen community leaders asked by The Sun to evaluate Dr. Amprey's performance since last August in the $125,000-a-year post. The report card says:

* The Baltimore superintendent established his authority but now must produce actual gains in the coming school year.

* He displayed zeal and tenacity as head of the state's most troubled school system, perceived as adrift and sinking when he took over.

* Dr. Amprey showed a lion tamer's willingness to tackle school reform and to tangle with the stubborn beast of the bureaucracy.

* His political and public-relations skills were evident during several crises, in sharp contrast to the ivory tower approach of his predecessor, Dr. Richard C. Hunter.

* Dr. Amprey is tough, forceful and sure of where the system must go. But he's often unspecific about how to get there.

"He came in like gangbusters," says Irene B. Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, who clashed with Dr. Amprey on several issues. "Leadership in the school system was very badly needed, and that's what we've got, leadership -- for good or ill."

Others agree that the superintendent has charisma.

"There seems to be an enthusiasm, an energy that we really haven't seen for a while," says Tru Ginsburg, president of the Maryland Education Coalition, a lobby group for public schools. "It seems to give you some hope that things are different."

Now comes the hard part: turning inspirational talk into higher test scores, better attendance and a leaner, more responsive bureaucracy.

And the city that gave Dr. Amprey an extended honeymoon is growing hungry for results.

"A tough year"

"This is going to be a tough year with him, because people's expectations are going to be real high," says City Councilman Carl B. Stokes, D-2nd, who chairs the council's education and human resources committee.

"People want to see some . . . achievement," Mr. Stokes says.

State Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs an education subcommittee in Annapolis, says, "Dr. Amprey says all the right things." But, she adds, "I'm at the point where I want to see" what he does.

None of that is lost on Dr. Amprey, a man with an abundance of self-confidence that some say borders on arrogance.

"I do think the city is poised and ready for change, and anticipating positive change," he says. "Those expectations also include greater expectations of me as a superintendent."

Dr. Amprey was a long-shot choice to head the school system, which has 110,000 pupils.

A Baltimore native and graduate of city schools, he was a well-regarded administrator in Baltimore County before starting his new job Aug. 1 of last year.

He had never headed a school system before; he earned his administrative stripes as a principal and then as an area and associate superintendent in the county.

He was chosen over a nationally-known candidate for the job, former state school Superintendent David W. Hornbeck, who had powerful champions in the city.

In picking Dr. Amprey, the school board seemed to hedge its bet, choosing two of the runner-up candidates, Dr. Patsy Blackshear and Dr. Lillian Gonzalez, as his two deputies.

Testing started quickly

And when school opened, Dr. Amprey soon found himself tested by the crisis-a-day pace of life in an urban school system.

In October, he was forced to deal with unexpected budget cuts, made necessary by reductions in state aid to the city.

In November, he was put on the defensive by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's decision, later reversed, to shut the schools for a week during the winter to save money.

Later that same month, he moved to deal with school-related violence -- only to have the issue explode again in February, when a student shot a school police officer at Roland Park Elementary-Middle School.

Through it all, Dr. Amprey seemed to give the school system something it had sorely lacked in recent years: vigorous leadership.

"One of the issues was to re-establish some measure of confidence in the senior administration, and he's done that," says Robert Keller, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Mr. Keller and others note that Dr. Amprey forged a good working relationship with his two deputies, allaying fears that the "troika" would degenerate into in-fighting and paralysis.

And the superintendent moved aggressively on a number of fundamental reforms, says Mr. Keller.

Chief among them was the decision to turn nine public schools over to Education Alternatives Inc., starting in September.

EAI is a Minneapolis company with its own custom-designed educational program.

That decision came under fire from some parents and community groups who said they weren't consulted in advance. They also questioned the wisdom of putting public schools in the hands of a for-profit firm.

Courage for change

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