Education gospel according to city schools' chief Amprey

September 19, 1993|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff Writer

The choirboy who spent much of his free time at the Methodist church around the corner from his West Baltimore rowhouse decided early in life that he would preach or he would teach.

Walter G. Amprey chose the city public school system that educated him over the church that nurtured his faith, teaching over preaching.

This summer, the charismatic 48-year-old chose the Baltimore schools once more -- and passed up a possible chance to run the biggest, most challenging school system of all. Dr. Amprey says his sense of mission and his commitment to Baltimore compelled him to withdraw from consideration to be chancellor of New York City's 1 million-student system just a few days before his scheduled interview for the job.

Today, two years after he took over as Baltimore's superintendent, the would-be preacher's sermon of salvation for city schools has won over countless converts -- parents, teachers, principals, advocacy groups, city and state lawmakers.

Dozens of his supporters -- and even some of his most vocal critics -- urged him to withdraw from contention for the New York schools chancellor slot, then praised his decision to remain in Baltimore.

But few of them would suggest that objective measures show significant progress, based on barometers Dr. Amprey himself established.

It is still a city where half of the children who start high school never finish. It is still a city whose public school students consistently average near the bottom in Maryland, judging by numerous performance measures. It is still a city with one of the worst teen pregnancy rates in America. It is still a city where the violence that permeates great swaths of the landscape often spills over into the classrooms and corridors of schools.

The bleak portrait of a 110,000-student school district beset by all the ills of inner-city America, a district that faces challenges as daunting as ever, inevitably leads to a question: After decades of downward spiral for a school system whose bureaucracy has continually grown as schools foundered, why do so many believe in Walter Amprey and his messianic message?

Message of hope

The believers speak of roots and hope and vision.

Dr. Amprey overcame odds that weighed heavily against him from the beginning, and he's convinced the troubled school system can as well.

That message of hope, as much as anything else, seems to have proved convincing and infectious.

Says City Council President Mary Pat Clarke: "He's as good a leader as we could have for the school system. He's a man who sincerely believes in education as a way out of poverty and into opportunity. He has faith in the children and the teachers, and he's stuck by his task and didn't run away."

Others say they welcome a candor often lacking at the top in a school system bureaucracy that has tended toward a defensive siege mentality over the years.

Early in his third year at the helm, Dr. Amprey acknowledges his administration has taken only "baby steps" and has a long way to go.

"Clearly, what we've been doing for decades isn't working," he says. "We're losing too many children, and we need a new direction."

New attitudes

More than money, additional teachers, school repairs, new books or high-tech equipment, what the district needs most, he believes, is hope and new attitudes.

His biggest challenge, he says, lies in overcoming a sort of collective inferiority complex that has long pervaded classrooms, neighborhoods, the school bureaucracy.

He envisions a school system with less "tracking" of students as gifted or slow, more individual attention to students, less reliance on low grades and red pen ink, fewer suspensions and arrests, more efforts to build self-esteem.

For too long, he says, too many teachers have viewed too many kids as unintelligent and impossible to educate.

That proves a self-fulfilling prophecy, Dr. Amprey says.

To reverse the "suicidal direction," he says, everything he does as superintendent must be based on one guiding principle.

In educator-speak, it's called efficacy, which means children, teachers, schools, entire districts live up or down to expectations of them. Believe in them, help them believe in themselves, Dr. Amprey says, and they will succeed.

This fall, administrators, teachers and other staff in the city's 177 schools will hear that message again and again in intensive training by the Efficacy Institute, a nonprofit organization run by the man Dr. Amprey looks to as a mentor, Jeffrey Howard, a Harvard-educated social psychologist.

Says Dr. Amprey: "We really believe the only way out is to change the way we see young people, . . . to save these youngsters before we lose them for good."

To Dr. Amprey, whose gray-flecked hair tops an imposing 6-foot-4-inch frame, that sometimes means looking outside the city's borders.

A Minneapolis firm, Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI), just began its second year running nine schools in a bold experiment being watched closely by educators and investors nationwide. Sylvan

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