Amprey's first year

August 13, 1992

There is an almost irresistible compulsion to grade the performance of Walter G. Amprey after one year in office as Baltimore City's school superintendent. Dr. Amprey, in an interview with The Sunday Sun, awarded himself an A. What could be more natural for an educator than awarding a grade at the end of the year?

But in many ways, after just one year, it's too early to judge Dr. Amprey. It is certainly too soon to expect dramatic results in student achievement. What one would hope for after a year in a system as troubled as Baltimore's is some indication that the schools are moving in the right direction. On that score, the signs are mixed.

On the plus side, Dr. Amprey's forceful personality projects leadership. When there is bad news (a shooting, for example), he is visible and concerned; his predecessor, Richard Hunter, often became invisible to the public in times of trouble.

In a system that needs bold initiatives, he signed on for one, agreeing to let a private company operate nine city schools. He has also indicated interest in having programs run by local colleges.

He has put the heat on principals to perform well. He has shown political skills, vital for the job, working well with the mayor and school board. While money is an eternal problem for city schools, he has avoided falling into the trap of saying that little can be done until financing is reformed.

On the other hand, he has yet to project a clear vision for the system. While the private-firm arrangement is bold, he has been slow to offer interesting programs run by the city schools themselves.

He has, so far at least, been slow to pick up on a consultants' report commissioned by Associated Black Charities, which suggested that schools be given broad power to manage their own budgets, while central administration units would have to compete on the open market to win schools as customers.

School reform takes patience. As educators like to point out, the crisis in school systems like Baltimore City's was not created overnight, and they will not be solved overnight, either. Many of the problems are created by forces outside the schools; for example, if there are drugs and violence in the communities, there will be spillover into the schools.

But while some problems will take years to work out -- and others cannot be solved at all by school officials -- it is also important to show the public that there is a plan for improvement and that steps are being taken to put the plan into action as quickly as possible.

Ultimately, Dr. Amprey must be graded not on whether he has the personal magnetism to project leadership, but on where he is leading the system.

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