Barclay's principal retiring Leadership: Gertrude Williams believed her students deserved 'a rich man's program,' and she had the moxie to make it happen.

The Education Beat

July 22, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

GERTRUDE WILLIAMS tangled with two superintendents and beat them both.

Richard C. Hunter lost his job in part because he underestimated the principal of Barclay School. A few years later, Walter G. Amprey beat a hasty retreat after trying to show Williams who had the power.

She did.

It was the curriculum of the private Calvert School that established Williams' reputation, that and her in-your-face style. Installing the Calvert program at Barclay, a Charles Village public school where nine of 10 students live in poverty, she demonstrated that poor kids can learn, too. She made Barclay perhaps Maryland's most famous public school, visited by educators and journalists from around the world.

But she's 70 now and recovering from successful brain surgery. "Trudi," as most everyone calls her, retired July 1 from the job she'd held for 24 of her 49 years in Baltimore education. "I figured that if I'm going to do something else with my life, I'd better start doing it," she said last week.

At the turn of the decade, Williams and a group of parents and community leaders had an idea that many considered plain nuts. Calvert and Barclay are a few miles apart as the crow flies but a world apart as a racially and economically divided society operates -- the one school expensive, mostly white and blue-blooded, the other free, mostly black and poor.

Why not see what happens, Williams and the others asked, if we try the Calvert curriculum -- traditional, highly structured, demanding -- at Barclay? The Abell Foundation, which had floated the idea initially, offered to finance the experiment.

Hunter, however, had other ideas. He called the Calvert program a "rich man's curriculum." Big mistake. Williams (who had moved from county to city to be closer to her school) turned the phrase on its ear. "It is a rich man's program," she said. "Why weren't we entitled to a rich man's program, why couldn't our children get a bite of this fantastic curriculum, especially if it wasn't going to cost taxpayers a dime?"

Furor ensued. The Barclay folks mobilized and eventually persuaded Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to intervene. Barclay got the Calvert curriculum.

A few years later, Superintendent Amprey came to the school to tell Williams she was due for a transfer.

"I just told Walter I wasn't going to go. I said I didn't plan to go out and start another revolution at my age," she remembered. "He said, 'I can remove you from the system if I want to.' I went back and told the SIT [school improvement team] what he'd said, and all hell broke loose."

Amprey, who once called the 4-foot-11 Williams the "Mother Teresa of city schools," quickly backed down after another call from Schmoke. Trudi was not to be touched.

Hunter says he was misunderstood on the Barclay/Calvert issue, but evidence is strong that he opposed the plan because it wasn't his. Evidence is equally strong that Amprey was trying to assert his authority over the most powerful of principals.

As he plots strategy, Robert Booker, the new chief executive officer, ought to take a close look at what happened at Barclay over the eight years of the Calvert partnership. The plan has been pronounced an unqualified success, and many a journalist has seen the evidence. "People come to the school and are shocked when they see second-graders reading and writing at or above grade level," said Williams proudly. "We've proved that economics should have no control over somebody's brain power.

"In fact, some of our parents have seen what the program has done for their children, and they're coming in now for our literacy classes. It's true what the Bible says: A little child shall lead them."

All well and good, but there's that little fact that Barclay can't sweep under the rug. Last year, the school was placed on the state's school takeover list, based on its poor showing in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, known as MSPAP.

Williams called that development "devastating." Several factors beyond the control of Barclay combined in the poor MSPAP showing, she said. For example, student turnover at Barclay and most other city schools makes it difficult to sustain a new and different instructional approach.

But key questions arise: Is MSPAP a good measure of highly structured programs like Calvert and Direct Instruction, another scripted curriculum used in several city schools? Or can any program overcome the devastating effects of poverty and student mobility?

"It's been exciting," Williams said of her long career in Baltimore education. "I think I reached the peak of my career with the Calvert program. It's one of the few programs in city schools that's actually had a chance to grow roots. You've got to give a program a chance to grow roots, and we don't in Baltimore. You'll never grow roots if every year, every superintendent, you do something different."

Williams said she wants to do some writing and traveling in her retirement, but last week she was on her own time at Barclay helping her successor, David Clapp, 29, a Calvert and Gilman School graduate who has vowed to keep the curriculum with which he was raised going strong at Barclay.

"I've been fortunate to work in a community where education is valued," Williams said. "The kids are great, and I've been here long enough that the children I had years ago are grown men and women. They've been saying, 'You can't retire,' but I have to. It's time."

Pub Date: 7/22/98

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