Amprey Gives Self An `A' For Effort

But His Effectiveness Rates A `B,' Departing Schools Chief Says

April 29, 1997|By Marcia Myers and Jean Thompson | Marcia Myers and Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

Dr. Walter G. Amprey, hailed as a risk-taker among educators and vilified as a bad manager by a federal judge, looks at his six-year tenure as Baltimore schools superintendent and gives himself two grades: A for effort, B for effectiveness.

If he had the chance to do the job again, he doubts he would do anything different, he said yesterday.

"Nothing was done without real planning -- there were no knee-jerk developments or plans," he said. "I don't think there were any problems that developed because I got here. I don't think there are any problems this system has had that were exacerbated by me, nor any that developed after I came."

Amprey, who is leaving to join an education subsidiary of the cable giant Tele-Communications Inc., impressed many as a bold visionary when he took charge of the schools in 1991.

He had 25 years of experience moving up the ranks of the city and Baltimore County school systems, but none as superintendent. In the embattled Baltimore City schools, he faced the daunting responsibility for 110,000 students.

He seemed unintimidated. He spoke movingly and often of his conviction that all children are capable of high achievement. His goals quickly included a dramatic initiative -- the Tesseract experiment in private control of

city schools. In times of crisis, he was on the scene, quickly restoring a sense of confidence in the superintendent's office.

Comfortable in the spotlight, Amprey's style eclipsed that of his predecessor, Richard C. Hunter, whom many considered aloof. The new superintendent was diplomatic and combative by turns. He charmed and inspired students. And he quickly won over skeptics who doubted Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's decision to choose Amprey over the recommendations of a teachers union and a number of influential city groups.

As chief policy-maker in a system in which the school board served merely as a rubber stamp, Amprey at first seemed to back his rhetoric with quick and decisive action that inspired more than it threatened.

He turned to Education Alternatives Inc. to manage nine schools, then gave the company a role in three others. He hired Sylvan Learning Systems to tutor kids falling behind. He brought in the Efficacy Institute from Lexington, Mass., to train teachers and others in raising expectations.

He scheduled daylong "safe schools summits" and pledged to diffuse power and money to the schools themselves instead of concentrating them at headquarters.

He promised dramatic gains in student achievement, attendance, dropout rates and the long losing struggle against violence.

From a public relations standpoint, his actions succeeded brilliantly -- until it came time for the results.

With the notable exception of Sylvan's efforts, Amprey's reforms failed to come close to delivering on the promise of dramatic improvements by any measure.

The spotlight he relished also blazed harsh and unforgiving.

During the second half of his tenure, the Baltimore schools operated under a state of siege.

A federal judge overseeing special-education reforms cracked down, levying sanctions on high-ranking administrators when improvements were not delivered completely or on time. Amprey was placed in civil contempt of court.

On the judge's order, Schmoke appointed a special-education chief with powers equivalent to Amprey's.

City scores overall crawled upward in tiny increments: Amprey and staff celebrated, but then the state lowered the boom.

It ordered top-to-bottom overhauls at two city schools, and kept going until altogether it had ordered them at 50 of 179 schools.

Meanwhile, the Maryland General Assembly demanded reforms.

Amprey's administration responded by reorganizing budgeting and spending so that the schools themselves would control many decisions once made by the central office. Amprey's administration heeded many of the suggestions, such as improving professional training for principals, and rejected many others, such as privatizing the school police force.

Amid this strife, Schmoke geared up to fight for an increase in the state's education aid, the culmination of a decade of fruitless negotiations and commission studies. Mandates for improvement were sapping an already-strained budget.

Schmoke and the American Civil Liberties Union separately sued the state.

The state fought back, claiming that Amprey ran a rudderless ship. Eventually, all of these forces aligned to advocate landmark changes -- a wave that Schmoke and Amprey could not overcome.

In secret talks to settle the various lawsuits during the past year, Amprey's fate has always been an issue -- if not always directly discussed.

In time, Amprey would claim that there was a price on his head -- the price of new aid for city schools. He told friends that he would be willing to go if that's what it would take to win a decent raise in state aid for the city.

Despite the local antagonism, he built a national reputation for being willing to take risks, and for weathering crises much larger than those faced by other superintendents.

In the end, even the mayor continued to call Amprey a visionary for persistently beating the drum for special programs in urban education, such as after-school programs and character education. He may not have had the management skills -- in fact, at times, he may have been overwhelmed by the long-entrenched challenges -- but he set the course for risk-taking that brought the city schools national attention.

Pub Date: 4/29/97

Sun staff writers Gary Gately and Mark Bomster contributed to this article.

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