Stability for Baltimore schools

August 26, 1993

As superintendent of schools in Baltimore, Walter G. Amprey has launched promising programs which depart sharply from a status quo which isn't nearly good enough. At the same time, he has won and maintained the confidence of key constituency groups: parents, teachers, City Hall, business leaders.

That shouldn't be an unusual combination, but it is. The city is fortunate that Dr. Amprey withdrew his candidacy for the top school job in New York City.

Reforming schools takes patience and persistence. In Baltimore, Dr. Amprey has begun to take hold after the short, unhappy tenure of Richard Hunter. Coming in from outside, Dr. Hunter took awhile to learn the city system. By the time he began taking action, he was already losing the support of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. The result was more than a year of lame-duck administration, with Dr. Hunter serving out his three-year contract and the city schools lacking clear and consistent direction.

Dr. Amprey's most dramatic initiatives have been examples of turning over instruction to private companies -- one to do remedial instruction, another to operate nine schools altogether. He is also making a major push to train all school staff in "efficacy" -- the belief that all children can learn.

These efforts leave him with three major challenges:

* In regard to school programs operated by private contractors, his challenge is to evaluate these experiments carefully -- not just to learn whether they are working, but why.

* An even greater challenge is to infuse city schools with a spirit that can produce its own reforms. Teachers and administrators should be encouraged to match their creativity against that of the outside firms.

* Finally, he has to build on the lessons of efficacy training. The belief that each child can learn is essential to a successful school system, but that belief alone will not do the job. After belief, the city still needs effective instructional strategies, efficient management and adequate resources.

One of Dr. Amprey's strengths is that he has refused to use tight budgets and the social problems of his students as an excuse. Previous superintendents, including Dr. Hunter, have sometimes stressed lack of resources to the point of sending the message that nothing was worth doing until finances were reformed. Dr. Amprey needs to walk the delicate line of saying that positive steps are possible, while still working to solve painfully real budget problems.

The job is difficult, but he's made a good start.

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