Amprey a fervent convert to EAI Schools chief forges deep bound with dynamic company founder

June 06, 1995|By Mike Bowler and Gary Gately | Mike Bowler and Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writers

To Walter G. Amprey, John T. Golle is a visionary. To John Golle, Walter Amprey is a visionary.

Together, they have told each other repeatedly over the past three years, they would change the face of American education.

The superintendent of Baltimore's troubled schools and the salesman who says he can rescue them share both a philosophy and a friendship. "Some-times we think we were brought together by perhaps a higher being, and maybe it was meant to be," says Mr. Golle, the Min-nesota businessman whose company manages nine Baltimore schools.

When the privatization venture came under a barrage of criticism, the two men became allies in what Mr. Golle would liken to war. "We're winning!" the chief executive of Education Alternatives Inc. scrawled in a note to the superintendent last December.

Once a skeptic who regarded Mr. Golle as a "huckster," Dr. Amprey has become the most committed of converts. He's touted the "Tesseract Way" coast to coast and passionately defended it against detractors. But his dual roles -- EAI cheerleader and point man for city oversight -- have raised questions about his ability to make clear-eyed judgments about the project.

"Dr. Amprey has sacrificed his objectivity, and he's sacrificed his relationship with community organizations for the sake of EAI," said Carol Reckling, former president of Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, a church-based activist organization.

Dr. Amprey acknowledged the concerns: "There were questions about whether I was so enamored with the company, so tied up with this whole idea that . . . you see EAI, you see Walter Amprey; you see Walter Amprey, you see EAI, that we almost became one and the same."

But the superintendent insisted he did the right thing. Calling Tesseract - the word is from a children's book - nothing less than a "revolution," he described the "Catch-22" in which he found himself: "I believe in the concept and wouldn't have done it if I didn't believe in it. . . . My job as superintendent is to make it work, but because it's a public-private partnership, people also feel I ought to be more scrupulous, keep some distance from it."

Dr. Amprey said the EAI chief has offered him employment if he leaves Baltimore, "but he's not said it in any sense other than if I ever need a job. I just kind of let it go in one ear and out the other."

Never, he said, has he taken a favor. "I never allowed [EAI] to give me anything, and I won't."

Without an agenda

The friendship would have seemed unlikely four years ago, when Mr. Golle, the consummate salesman, began pitching his deal even before Dr. Amprey had cleaned out his desk in Baltimore County for the move to the city superintendent's suite.

"I thought to myself," Dr. Amprey remembered, "I'm probably going to get a lot of people like this, just hucksters in the marketplace. Of course, you've got to remember I was brand new -- and scared."

Dr. Amprey also thought then that school privatization was a "dumb idea. There's always another flavor of the month in education, always something else you're going to try, another gimmick that works for a while and then gets shelved."

The new superintendent was still adjusting to what he called "the numbness of the newness." He'd been surprised by his appointment. Only four of 15 civic organizations interviewing candidates for the school board that summer recommended Dr. Amprey, and Mayor Schmoke had urged the community groups' favorite, former state schools Superintendent David W. Hornbeck, to become a candidate.

But Dr. Hornbeck had alienated some school board members by insisting on a detailed nine-point reform program that included a clean sweep of top administrators at the system's North Avenue headquarters. By contrast, Dr. Amprey had no agenda; he announced he would study the district and develop "a long-range plan that the city itself and all of us together can put together and then follow."

Some board members found this attractive. And they saw attributes in Dr. Amprey that were missing in Dr. Hornbeck, now superintendent in Philadelphia. Dr. Amprey was a former teacher and principal, he was a native Baltimorean and he was black. Mr. Schmoke, in the midst of a tough re-election campaign, had been advised privately by a group of ministers that the new school chief had to be an African-American. In the end, the mayor acceded to the Amprey choice.

Once on the job, Dr. Amprey became sharply critical of the system he inherited. He admitted that the schools were failing. He complained of the "learned helplessness" and "organizational paralysis" afflicting city schools.

Frustrated by a school culture that seemed resigned to failure, Dr. Amprey became interested in the "Efficacy" philosophy conceived by Jeffrey Howard, a Harvard-educated social psychologist. It's based on the belief that all children are capable of succeeding academically; if they fail to do so, it's because society expects little of them.

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