Bob Embry's ideas Gadfly and goad: He backs his advice with Abell Foundation dollars.

January 29, 1996

WHEN A STORY broke recently that Baltimore school officials were considering adapting the Calvert School's curriculum for use in every elementary school in the city system, no one should have been surprised to see Robert C. Embry Jr.'s name attached to the proposal. Mr. Embry is a man of many ideas -- and, as president of the Abell Foundation, he is in a position to back many of them with funds. When it comes to Baltimore City Public Schools, from which he graduated and in which his own children are being educated, Mr. Embry is nothing if not impassioned.

His fierce belief in the city and in its public schools is worth noting at a time when urban public school systems seem hopelessly mired in crisis, crippled by everything from bureaucratic stalemate to violently disruptive students and an inability to distribute text books and supplies. Many other sources of private funding have looked at the city schools and taken a pass on contributing money until there is evidence of better management. Not Mr. Embry. To him, a crisis is a challenge.

Whether it is championing a program like the Calvert partnership with Barclay School -- for which he gets enormous credit -- or underwriting chess clubs in city schools, Mr. Embry is never short of plans, advice or suggestions. This can rub people the wrong way, raising suspicions that he is determined to run the schools from the state or city school boards or as the Abell president. Last year, in a nod to Embry critics, Governor Glendening refused to reappoint Mr. Embry to the state school board.

That, no doubt, was a deeply felt blow. But it hardly ended Mr. Embry's passion for improving schools, especially in Baltimore City. In both his public and private capacities, Bob Embry has made it abundantly clear that his commitment to improving schools -- and goading unimproving schools -- is fierce. At a time when urban public schools desperately need both believers and caring critics, his unflagging dedication is a model for us all.

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