City schools chief assails EAI critics

November 17, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

Amid mounting doubts and criticism about Baltimore's school-privatization experiment, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey declared war last night on detractors who are demanding a halt to the effort.

To angry outbursts from critics at a privatization forum -- and cheers from several dozen supporters bused there by the school system -- Dr. Amprey renewed his support for the work of Education Alternatives Inc. and pledged to involve parents and teachers at EAI-run schools in a full-scale campaign to counter critics.

"We're going to speak out when people come forward, including politicians, . . . [who] say they will kill this program in the schools," Dr. Amprey told about 125 people at a Walbrook High forum called the ABCs of Privatization. "They haven't heard anything yet."

Sounding a familiar theme, he complained that the harshest criticism was a product of politics and asserted that most of the complaints came from those unfamiliar with the work of EAI. The Minneapolis company began running the nine "Tesseract" schools in 1992 and has since taken on a more limited role in three others here.

He also said the interest nationally in school privatization was proof of the experiment's merit.

"You don't have to be a soothsayer . . . to understand that this whole concept of partnership is here to stay. It's proliferating. . . . We see signs of that. I don't think it's odd; I think it's natural. It's a natural healing process that must take place based on the crisis" in education.

Calling the movement a "revolution," he added: "While I'm superintendent, we will not sleep through this revolution."

As part of the school system's counteroffensive, Dr. Amprey said teachers and parents at EAI-run schools would be asked to express their support publicly for the work of the company, which holds more than $180 million in city contracts over five years.

Some of the supporters filled rows of the Walbrook auditorium. They had been driven to the forum on a city school bus. Many sported gray sweat shirts that EAI gave them, bearing the words "Schools that work."

Evette Shaw, the parent of a student at Malcolm X Elementary, a Tesseract school, praised the company's emphasis on education plans tailored to each student's needs and what she called an uplifting atmosphere. "When you walk into the school, it's like like being at home with a family."

Others presented a different view and sharply criticized the superintendent's consistent advocacy on behalf of the company and said he has abandoned the crucial oversight role.

Phillip A. Brown Jr., the PTA president at Cecil Elementary, denounced the superintendent's travels in support of EAI.

"You can't be superintendent and an EAI spokesperson," Mr. Brown said. "I can't be police and rob a bank at the same time. Why don't you stop taking money from EAI?"

But Dr. Amprey defended his public testimonials on behalf of the company's work here.

"EAI and Baltimore City Public Schools are in partnership, and I take partnership very seriously. I didn't get into it . . . to back away from it."

EAI's Baltimore experiment has had many setbacks in recent weeks, as newly released figures showed that overall average test scores have declined for the eight Tesseract elementary schools, while rising districtwide in EAI's first two years.

Average attendance gains at the Tesseract schools during the experiment's first two years also fell short of improvements made citywide.

The revelations fueled critics' claims that the experiment is a failure that diverts $10 million a year from other schools in a fiscally tight district.

But Dr. Amprey and EAI say the experiment has laid the groundwork for significant improvements in attendance and academic performance by improving the condition of buildings, boosting morale and heightening parental involvement.

Some City Council members, civic leaders and the head of a citywide PTA group called for a halt to the experiment after this school year. Then, last month, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke told the company that its future here depends on improving student performance.

The Fund for Educational Excellence, along with other city organizations, sponsored last night's forum.

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